Paul has written that God’s wrath is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth about God by their wickedness. His wrath is revealed in the way he lets us fall deeper and deeper into sin and into the misery our sin causes us. However, in the gospel God reveals to us that there is a way for sinners to become right with God. But it’s got nothing to do with keeping the law, because no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by observing the law, because all the law does is reveal our sinfulness to us. Instead, we’re justified — which means we’re pardoned by God and accepted as righteous in God’s sight — we’re justified by grace and through faith in his Son. And, of course, we’re to trust in his Son, Jesus Christ, because, by laying down his life, he has redeemed us. That is, he has paid the ransom price to free us from the condemnation we deserve for our sins. And we’re to trust in his Son, Jesus Christ, because God presented him as the sacrifice for sins so that he suffered in our place the punishment for our sins.
I mentioned last time that from chapter 3 verse 27 to the end of chapter 4, Paul’s theme is faith. So, in verses 27 to 31 of chapter 3, he introduces the theme. And he explained that since we’re justified through faith in Jesus Christ, then there’s no reason for any of us to boast, because we contribute nothing at all to our salvation. Even the faith by which we believe is a gift from God.
And then, since there’s only one God, then there’s only one way to be saved: both Jews and Gentiles — the circumcised and the uncircumcised — are justified through faith in Jesus Christ. There is no other way than that.
And even though people may accuse Paul of nullifying the law and of making it of no importance, he says at the end of chapter 3 that, in fact, instead of nullifying the law, we uphold the law.
So, having introduced this theme, Paul goes on in chapter 4 to explore it, using Abraham from the Old Testament to demonstrate that this has always been God’s way. It’s always been the case that sinners are justified — pardoned and accepted — through faith alone. So, in verses 1 to 8, he contrasted faith and works. In verses 9 to 12, he contrasts faith and circumcision. And in verses 13 to 22 he discusses faith and the law. And all three of those sections match the three points he made in verses 27 to 31 of chapter 3. Faith not works. Faith not circumcision. Faith not law.
Verses 1 to 3
In verse 1 of chapter 4, Paul refers to Abraham. And, of course, Abraham is one of the major characters in the Bible and he was revered by the Jews. After all, every Jew was descended from Abraham, and he was the one who received the promises of God about the Promised Land and about the great nation that would come from him. They all revered him.
But Abraham was also held up as an example of true godliness and of faithful obedience to the God. Here’s what one ancient Jewish book said about him:
Abraham was perfect in all his deeds with the Lord, and well-pleasing in righteousness all the days of his life.
And we can see why the Jews might have said that about him. Didn’t he obey the Lord who commanded him to leave his father’s home and go to the land God was going to show him? He didn’t know where God would take him, but he obeyed. And didn’t he obey the Lord’s command to offer up his son as a burnt offering to the Lord? Didn’t that story demonstrate his perfect obedience? And so, the Jews regarded him as an example of true godliness and faithful obedience.
Well, was Abraham justified by works? Was he declared right with God on the basis of his obedience to God’s revealed will? Well, Paul goes on to say in verse 2 that if that were true, then Abraham would have reason to boast. He would be able to stand up in heaven and say about himself:
Aren’t I great? I obeyed God perfectly and that’s why I’m here now. I deserve to be here, in the presence of God, because of what I did while I was on the earth.
If Abraham was justified by works, then he had a reason to boast. ‘But not before God’, Paul adds at the end. And he added that at the end, because Paul knows that no one is justified by works. ‘What does the Scripture say?’ Paul asks in verse 3. And he’s referring to the Old Testament Scriptures. Well, in Genesis 15:6 it says:
Abraham believed God….
Do you see? It doesn’t highlight his obedience, but his faith.
Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.
So, God credited righteousness to him, or God counted him as righteous. And why did God credit righteousness to him? Why did God count him as righteous? Because of what he did? No, it was because he believed. And remember: faith is the gift of God; and so, we have to say that God enabled Abraham to believe. God enabled Abraham to believe; and because he believed, Abraham was declared right with God. Or to put it another way: he was justified by faith.
Verses 4 and 5
In verse 4 Paul uses the illustration of a man who goes to work and he earns his pay. In other words, at the end of the week, or at the end of the month, his employer doesn’t hand him his wage and say:
Here’s a present for you.
No, he says:
Here are your wages. You’ve earned them.
Justification is not like that. Abraham didn’t earn justification; and we don’t earn justification. We don’t have any claim over God so that he’s obligated to save us. That’s the point of verse 4. And in verse 5, Paul makes the same point one more time when he says that to the person who does not work, but who trusts God, his faith is credited as righteousness. God regards the one who believes as righteous in his sight.
Paul gives us a wonderful description of God in this verse. What is God like? Well, according to verse 5, he’s the one who justifies the wicked. Now, that doesn’t mean he ignores our wickedness. It’s not that he treats our sins as unimportant. You know, if a human judge shrugged his shoulders after hearing the jury’s verdict and said ‘Who cares?’, there would be a riot. A human judge cannot ignore our guilt; and God cannot ignore our guilt or treat our sins as unimportant. So, we need to remember what we’re already learned from Paul: Jesus Christ is our Redeemer who, by his death, has paid the debt we owe to God for our disobedience. And Jesus Christ has suffered the wrath of God in our place. God hasn’t ignored our sins; he’s punished them in full. So, that’s the first thing we need to remember when we read that God justifies the wicked. He doesn’t disregard our sin, because Christ the Lord has suffered God’s wrath in our place for our sins.
And the second thing to note is something that the American theologian and pastor Jonathan Edwards wrote about. Writing about this statement — ‘God who justifies the wicked’ — he wrote that immediately before God justifies us, he sees us only as an ungodly creature. In other words, it’s not that he looks at us, and sees something good in us. It’s not even that he looks at us and sees that we have some good potential. You know, the way an employer makes a judgment about someone: he’s not ready yet, but I see potential in him, and so I’ll give him a go. No, God doesn’t see anything good in us. He sees us only as an ungodly, sinful creature, right up to the moment he justifies us. But then, from that moment when he justifies us, instead of seeing us as only an ungodly, sinful creature, he sees us as righteous in his sight. Have we changed? No! We’re not any better than we were a moment before. But God has granted to us a new status, or a new standing. We’re sinners, but we’re pardoned. We’re sinners, but God has accepted us.
Think of the thief on the cross, who died next to the Lord Jesus. He must have lived a wicked life, because he was being executed for his crimes. And he had no time to remedy his life. He had no time to change his ways and to make up for his past sins. Nevertheless, he was able to die, knowing that he would be with Christ in glory, because the moment he trusted in Christ, God justified him and pardoned his sins and accepted him as righteous in his sight.
And then, there’s just one other thing to notice here. You see, we know people who live good and upright lives. People who have done far, far better than us. People we admire because of the life they live. Perhaps we can think of famous people who have dedicated their lives to some cause or they’ve raised millions of pounds for charity, people who are known and admired for their good deeds. But, here’s the thing: If God justifies that person, he won’t do it because of their good deeds. He won’t justify them on account of the things they have done, because God justifies us for the sake of Christ who died for us and not because of anything we have done. And that puts the good and upright person on the same level as the utterly godless and wicked person. Both are justified in exactly the same way: through faith in Christ who died for sinners.
Now, very often, the good and upright person is offended by that:
Surely my good deeds must count for something?
But the wicked love this message, because it means that there’s hope for them. And we see both of these reactions in the gospels, don’t we? The Pharisees and teachers of the law, who lived such good lives, were offended by the Lord Jesus. But the tax-collectors and sinners drew near to hear what the Lord had to say, because his message is such good news for those who know there is nothing good in them.
And it’s the same today. I’ve preached in churches and there have been longstanding members who have been offended by the message of the cross. But then I’ve seen others who know just how sinful they really are, and they love to hear the good news that God justifies the wicked.
Verses 6 to 8
Having spoken about Abraham and his faith, Paul goes on to mention David. And the reason he mentions David is because of what David wrote in Psalm 32. In Psalm 32, David wrote about the blessedness, or the joy we experience when God pardons our transgressions and covers over our sins. In other words, instead of counting our sins against us, God counts us as righteous in his sight. Instead of treating us as if we’ve done everything wrong, he treats us as if we’ve done everything right. And he does this for us, says Paul in verse 6, apart from our works.
So, once again, Paul is making clear that we have no reason to boast. We contribute nothing to our salvation, because we’re justified through faith in Jesus Christ and on the basis of what he has done for us when he died as our Redeemer to pay for our sins and when he suffered God’s wrath in our place. And, of course, that’s why David can speak about the blessedness, or the joy, of knowing our sins have been forgiven, because we know we did not deserve this, but owe it all to Christ our Saviour.