Romans 4: The One Who Does Not Work
March 5, 2023
TODAY'S BIBLE READING:
This chapter is less compact in its argument than the ones previous, and presents a grand vision of how Abraham in particular (and David too) also give evidence to prove Paul’s thesis. These great Old Testament heroes, they were likewise justified by faith without works—just as are we. This is the great point of Romans chapter 4, and it is written especially to win over those who would look to Abraham (and David) as examples of how it is that we are saved. The story goes throughout this chapter, but in some ways the key statement—certainly the most startling—is in verse 5:
“to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness” (4:5).
To the one who does not work. What an amazing statement! God who justifies the ungodly. What an extraordinary idea! And their faith is credited as righteousness. In this sentence is all the revolutionary power of the grace of the gospel. It is worth studying and turning over in our minds again and again. There are two things this text does not mean, and then three things it does mean:
First, this text does not mean that Christians may behave and think of what is unwholesome, much less what is wrong. Paul will make it clear in Romans 6 that this radical gospel of grace by no means implies that we should sin without thought or consideration of the effects of that sin. Instead, we are to put sin to death. So this text does not mean that Christians can sin without consequence. In fact, to even consider that is to misunderstand—apart from anything else—what sin is. Sin is spiritual cancer. If it can be removed from you by grace, why would you wish to take it on again? The gospel is the power that exists to not only justify the ungodly, but to motivate and inspire still sinful Christians to grow in Christlikeness.
Second, this text does not mean that God simply “forgives” as if that forgiveness happened without cost. Remember how Romans 3 concluded by teaching us that God can be both just and justify the unrighteous because of the righteous sacrifice of Christ. Our forgiveness, our justification, comes at the supreme cost of the blood of Jesus himself. This is no cheap grace.
But if this text does not mean those two things, what does this text mean? These three may be considered:
First, it means that our justification is not based upon anything that we do or have done. That statement alone should give a smile to the greatest sinner and pause to the most self-righteous religionist. I cannot earn my way to heaven. It is not what I have done; it is what Christ has done for me.
Second, it means that justification was grace through faith in the Old Testament as well as the New Testament. Abraham was justified by faith (as was David). The distinction between the Old Testament and the New Testament is not a distinction between being saved by works, and now being saved by faith. God’s people have always been rescued by grace, received through faith in him and his promises.
Third, it means—perhaps this most of all—that the most weary Christian, the most harried disciple, has today more reason to rejoice and be glad than any other person on the face of the planet. Rejoice, Christian: your salvation is not by works! It comes through faith! And God by his mercy justifies us wicked people! Oh, how much there is to rejoice in, how much there is to be glad about! And what great reason there is, therefore, to serve this God of grace with all our heart, soul, mind, and body!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.
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