Friday, October 26, 2007

For Reformation Sunday

(I don't normally post the same thing here and at my home blog, but I think this dovetails nicely with Fred's last post.)

In honor of Reformation Sunday this weekend, I want to post a little something on the nugget of truth that rocked the world that was, four hundred and ninety years ago.

Romans 4:5 says, "And to the one who does not work but trusts in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness." (ESV)

Truthfully, to get what this verse is saying, you've got to work your way in a straight line from Romans 1:1. Looking at it in isolation like this, with no extended discussion of context, is not the ideal way of doing things. But the discussion that follows does strive to take all of that into account. I'm looking at one verse, but striving to avoid looking at it as if it exists in a vacuum, okay?

1. "to the one who does not work": Paul has a very narrow definition in mind here. The one who does not work is not one who purposefully avoids doing anything. He's not one who disdains all good works. In context, this is one who has stopped trying to prove how righteous he is by knocking himself out with meticulous law-keeping. I mean, he's stopped using the law of God as his proving-ground.

It's easy to look back and see the Pharisees condemned in this. Their law-keeping was all about showing everybody how righteous they were.

But I think we have a tendency even as Christians to lapse into something like this. Maybe we don't try to do things to earn our commendation as righteous people (at least I hope we don't.) We can, though, slide into a thought process by which we still believe that our relationship with God is a works-based thing, and not a faith-based thing. If we're not conscious of great sin in our lives, it's easier for us to "feel" that God loves us. And when we yield to temptation, we can start to doubt that He does. So we can get into the whole performance-based rut if we do not always keep in mind that which is in fact the basis of our relationship with God: That is, of course, the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

Another thing to note: Paul is elsewhere always fervent to urge Christians to continue in good works, so this "one who does not work" is not talking about there being some virtue in doing nothing for the kingdom of God. It is narrowly describing one who has stopped trying to earn anything in His sight.

2. "but trusts him who justifies the ungodly": A world of theological confusion would be cleared up if we'd get a hold of this. Who is it that God justifies? Those who deserve it? The righteous? No. He justifies the ungodly. Now, the Bible teaches that justification is a very initial step in Christian life. It happens at the beginning. To the ungodly. But we are supposed to progress. You don't get to stay that way.

Connect this phrase to the one before it. The man who is justified has stopped trying to prove how righteous he is, and has accepted God's judgment as to his fallen nature: he has realized the truth of his ungodliness. He isn't "basically a good person." He isn't going to get any credit for trying his best to do right. He is ungodly: contrary to God in every way. Knowing how little you deserve the reward of heaven is really the first step toward getting there.

I have come to cherish this phrase of the Bible, like Captain Jack Sparrow treasures...well, treasure.

I'm called to trust in the One who justifies the ungodly; and it always elicits this response: "Praise God that I qualify!"

3. "his faith is counted as righteousness." : I don't have the time or space to give this what it deserves. This is it in a nutshell, the fulcrum of the Reformation, by which the world was moved.

The word "counted" there refers to imputation, and is often translated as "accounted." We really can think of this in terms of bookkeeping. It's all about what is laid to your account and what isn't. In the verses that follow this one, for instance, Paul shows from Psalms 32 that it's really not about whether you sin or not (since all have sinned--Romans 3:23,) but it's about what God chooses to record on your heavenly book, so to speak.

God justifies the ungodly by counting them righteous, or by imputing righteousness to their account. They are not actually righteous: they are ungodly, remember. But He calls them righteous, innocent, godly. Then, after this imputation, in which they are justified, He sets about the work of making them what He has called them (and this is referred to as "sanctification.")

Now, in my short time as a Southern Baptist pastor, I think I have detected a common misunderstanding here. The verse says the ungodly man's faith is counted as righteousness. So, from this, many have concluded that God has decided to equate faith and righteousness. Righteousness is faith, and vice versa. The theory is that God used to count law-keeping as righteousness, but when that didn't work out so well, He simply changed the rules in the middle of the game and has agreed to accept faith as if it was righteousness. So, then, if God looks upon a man who has faith, He says, "Ah, here is a righteous man."

Here is why this is wrong:

For one, it ignores the context of what has come before in this letter to the Romans. Specifically, it ignores the fact that Paul has previously made it plain that we are saved by the righteousness of God, as revealed in Christ, and not by any supposed righteousness that dwells in us. (See for instance, Romans 3:21-22.) Faith is not that righteousness. Faith receives that righteousness of Jesus Christ "whom God put be received by faith." Romans 3:25.

So then, when faith is imputed to us for righteousness, it is specifically the righteousness of Christ which is laid to our account. It is as perfect, holy, and spotless as the Lord Himself.

For another thing, if faith equals righteousness, then Paul's entire argument is overturned here. Paul has already said that it is not the righteous man who is justified: it is rather the ungodly man who believes and trusts. But if faith equals righteousness, how can the man who has faith be called "ungodly?" Wouldn't you have to call him righteous, if faith is that righteousness?

If faith is righteousness, then what you have in justification is simply God rewarding righteousness with the wages it deserves. If faith is righteousness, then it deserves to be justified, you see, and so Paul's whole argument that justification is a gift of God's grace is turned on its head. (As in Romans 4:4, for instance.)

No, faith is not righteousness. Faith is that by which the righteousness of Christ is apprehended, or grasped.

So this is really the crux of the Gospel invitation. Recognize how stinkin' ungodly you are and trust in the One who justifies the ungodly, by imputing the righteousness of Christ to their account.

If you already know and believe all of this, tell me, why are you not rejoicing?


Deviant Monk said...

Hey Mafia members- just wanted to let you know that I have a new blog at

It's pretty stripped down right now, but hopefully soon will have some content.

The old domain has already been snapped up by somebody else, and their postings are really inappropriate. Just wanted to let you know in case you had any links floating around.


Rhett said...


Thanks for the heads-up on that! I've changed the link on my blog.


gordan said...

I'm left wondering what our resident Deviant Monk would consider so inappropriate as to warrant a warning. Somebody quoting Scripture or something?

Just kidding, DM. Sort of.