What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? 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 CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS." Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.
The Magnitude of What's at Stake
In yesterday's newspaper I found the answer to the question: How can I help us all move back into our exposition of Romans with a fitting sense of the magnitude of what is at stake here? There was an article reporting on a message by Pope John Paul II concerning hell. The title of the article was, "Sinners earn eternal damnation, pope says."
Now we should be thankful for every Biblical truth that we hold in common with the Roman Catholic Church: that God is three Persons in one divine nature - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - that God created all things, that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man, that Christ died for sinners, that the Holy Spirit is needed to live a godly life, that the Scriptures are inspired by God, etc. It is a good thing that so much truth is upheld by so many.
But what this article made plain to me was that the Protestant reformation from 450 years ago was not unneeded. And it isn't just that there are serious problems with the authority of the pope, the place of tradition alongside Scripture, the veneration of Mary, the belief in the physical presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the claim that baptism regenerates, the teaching on purgatory, etc. Those are reason enough for a Reformation. But even more fundamentally, what this article showed was that the Biblical teaching on justification by faith is obscured so that most lay people do not see it, let alone savor it as precious and base their lives on it.
Justification by faith - getting right with God, being acquitted in his court, being forgiven for our sins, being declared righteous and having the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and our sins imputed to him, (not becoming righteous, but being counted as righteous while we are still sinners), and all this by faith alone - that is what the first eight chapters of Romans are mostly about. For the apostle Paul, it was the heart of the gospel message. The book of Romans is the fullest, most systematic, most extensive effort of the apostle Paul to put his message in writing. And it is all structured around the great truth of justification by faith.
A Misunderstanding of Justification
What then is the problem with what the pope said in this article? Well, to be fair, let's say this: news articles almost never get religious things right. So you will need to go deeper if you want to know precisely what the pope actually said with all its nuances. What I am responding to here is the popular conception that is coming through, and I do think Roman Catholic theology tends in this direction and is therefore dangerous.
Here's the issue. In the article, the pope portrayed hell as real, eternal and terrible - which is true - but the main point was that hell is not something God imposes on us, but a condition we bring about through separating ourselves from God. "Hell is not a punishment imposed externally by God, but the condition resulting from attitudes and actions which people adopt in this life. . . . Hell is the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy. So eternal damnation is not God's work but is actually our own doing."*
The two negative statements in that quote are not Biblical. It is not true to say, "Hell is not a punishment imposed externally by God." And it is not true to say, "Eternal damnation is not God's work." I'll come back in a moment to show you why. But why does it matter? It matters because if hell is merely a self-imposed condition of sinning and separation from God, and not a God-imposed judicial sentence and punishment for breaking God's law, then justification by faith, as Paul teaches it, simply isn't necessary.
Why not? Because what makes justification by faith so necessary, and so wonderful as the heart of the gospel, is that God is a just and holy judge who does indeed impose the punishment of hell on us externally - the very thing that this article says he does not do. But if hell is not a punishment imposed on us externally by God as a just judge because we have broken his law, then the whole point of justification is lost. We don't need it.
You can either do away with justification altogether, or you can change the meaning of it so that it no longer refers to God's acquitting us in court and reckoning us righteous, but instead refers to God's transforming our character and making us righteous. Behind this article is, I believe, the serious error of making hell the outworking of our character, so that heaven becomes the outworking of our character also. And thus since hell is not the consequence of the damnation of God, heaven is not the consequence of the justification of God. Instead, since damnation is seen as the deterioration of character, justification is redefined as the improvement of character.
But that is not what Paul means by justification and it is not the gospel that turned the world upside down. That you can get right with God through improved character is not the gospel.
Is Damnation the Work of God?
Let me make sure you see what the issue is and how wrong these negative sentences are in this article. Is it true to say, "Hell is not a punishment imposed externally by God"? And is it true to say, "Eternal damnation is not God's work"? Most of Romans 1-3 is written to show the opposite. After stating the theme of the letter in Romans 1:16-17, Paul says in 1:18, "The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness." Judgment is breaking in now and God is very angry with us in our sin. Verse 24: "God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts." Verse 26: "God gave them over to degrading passions." Verse 28b: "God gave them over to a depraved mind." These are active punishments of God. But there's more.
The main point is that his judgment on such behavior is coming. Romans 2:2: "And we know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who practice such things." Verse 3: "But do you suppose this, O man, when you pass judgment on those who practice such things and do the same yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God?" Verse 5: "Because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God." Judgment is coming from God and it will be the effect of his wrath against sin. That is what hell is. It is not simply a self-imposed condition; it is a God-imposed judgment, a legal sentence of everlasting punishment for sin. (See also 2:16; 3:5-6, 19.)
For these reasons and many more in the New Testament we should reject the statements, "Hell is not a punishment imposed externally by God," and "Eternal damnation is not God's work." Hell is a punishment imposed by God as a just judge on guilty sinners.
And why does it matter that we see it this way? Because if we don't know what our real plight is, we may not recognize God's rescue when it comes. And so we might not receive it and cherish it, and we may well be attracted by a substitute gospel that sounds very plausible, but misses the most essential thing. And we will not escape the judgment of God.
So these chapters in Romans about justification are of tremendous importance for your eternal welfare. And they are all the more important because some of the main Christian teachers in the world today in the largest Christian groups are saying things that are very misleading at best, and can bring your soul to ruin.
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.