Rightly or wrongly, it is commonly believed today that slavery is one of the worst crimes and travesties to ever occur on this planet. But far worse than the enslavement of one human being by another is the slavery which Christ addresses in John 8:33, 34. The proud Jews boasted that they, being Abraham’s seed, were never in bondage to any man. But our Lord soberly informed them that those who commit sin (meaning those that abide and continue in a life of sin) are slaves to sin. This is the worst slavery of all, for it has eternal repercussions. Liberation from this slavery comes only from knowing the Son of God, Who alone can set sinners free.
But Paul does not rely upon Genesis 15:6 alone to support his doctrine of righteousness received by gratuitous imputation. He points to the 32nd psalm, where the same truth is established, albeit stated negatively. David, in that psalm, describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness without any consideration of his works, by writing, “Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.”
David in this psalm is clearly not describing a righteous man who receives a reward because of his own goodness. The psalm is, in fact, a penitential psalm, perhaps (though it is not definitely stated) written upon the occasion of his sin with Bathsheba. Be that as it may, the context makes it perfectly clear that David is describing a time when his soul was so oppressed by a sense of his sin, that his moisture was turned into the drought of summer, and he became a perfect picture of misery. But when he determined to no longer keep silence, but openly and frankly confess his sins before God, he found that God forgave the iniquity of his sin, and received him back into favor. That is why he cries out at the beginning of the psalm of the blessedness of the man to whom God does not charge his iniquity.
This is of the utmost importance to Paul’s argument, because he has already proven that both Jew and Gentile are guilty before God, and worthy in themselves of condemnation. But even in the Old Testament David wrote of some people, inexpressibly blessed, because God would not charge them with the sins they had committed. These are the very same people who possess the faith of Abraham, a faith which is rewarded by an imputation of righteousness. This, then, seems to be the apostle’s argument: there are people to whom God, in His grace, refuses to charge their sins against them; rather than giving them their just deserts, He instead receives them because they have trusted in Him, and imputes a righteousness to them which they had no part in working out. This is proven positively by the statement declaring the imputation of righteousness to Abraham when he believed, and negatively by the fact that God does not impute iniquity to those who are in His favor. They are not left merely with a blank slate, no longer stained by charges of crime, but the charges of crime are entirely obliterated and replaced by a record of righteousness, which makes them doubly blessed in the eyes of heaven.
We must be brought to this, to be willing to put aside the verdict of our times, and of all times past or future, and to stand alone, if need be, in the midst of a howling and infuriated world, to do honor to the command of God, which is the only necessity to us, which it is imperative to us to obey, even though it should bring shame or death itself.
This is just the kind of sinner that God accepts. He has no truck with the Pharisee who stands in prayer, lauding his own character and boasting of his superiority to other men. It was, said Jesus, the publican who smote upon his breast and pleaded for mercy based upon God’s gratuitous grace alone, who went down to his house justified. That parable furnishes the perfect commentary upon the principle which Paul is here enunciating. The publican had no works of virtue which he could plead before God; all he could do was stand in shame, confessing his own vileness. And yet, his case was infinitely better than the proud Pharisee who thought himself right with God because of his own exact obedience to the law. God is a God Who justifies the ungodly! This is the marvel of marvels, and the one which ought to fill the heart of every believer with joy unspeakable and full of glory. It would only be compatible with human reason to imagine that God justified men who were trying hard, doing good, and living exemplary lives. Yet, in the role of the saints, we see many who were as black as the soot of hell with sin, translated from the power of darkness and into the kingdom of God’s dear Son.
This very principle demolishes forever all worksmongering religion. Any and every doctrine purporting itself to be Christian, which teaches that a man must live up to some standard of obedience to either obtain or attain justification, is here annihilated once and for all time. Rome is the chief offender at this point, though admittedly she has many imitators of varying stripes. The Pope’s doctrine is that a person is justified from original sin through baptism, but must live a holy life by the assistance of the Holy Spirit in order to maintain a state of justification. The commission of a mortal sin deprives a person of the grace of God, and it can only be regained through rigorous submission to the exacting requirements of Mother Church. It is strange that Paul the apostle knew nothing of any such concept. He simply states that God justifies ungodly sinners, for no other reason than that they believe His promises. Just like in the case of Abraham, that faith is counted for righteousness; or, if we may speak more precisely, the object upon which that faith attaches itself, is counted as righteousness; for, as we shall find in the 5th chapter, it is the obedience of Christ, in which our faith rests, which is the believer’s righteousness before God.
The man that is saved comes into a righteousness which God will accept the same way in which Abraham obtained it, and that is by faith. Paul describes the character of this man: he “worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly…” This is something to which the carnal, self-righteous sinner, who likes to pride himself on the excellence of his own character and conduct, can never submit. He cannot conceive of the fact that his almsgiving, his self-denial, his various acts of beneficence and kindness, contribute nothing to his salvation.
Of course, it must be noted that by “worketh not,” Paul does not insinuate that the converted sinner has no interest at all in living correctly. He will anticipate that objection at the beginning of the 6th chapter. What he is speaking of here is the concept of working to earn salvation. This is quite clear, because this 5th verse, where he speaks of the ungodly sinner who worketh not, stands in contrast to the 4th verse, where he described the hypothetical case of a man who worked for his salvation, and received it as a debt, and therefore excluded grace from the equation. The enlightened sinner the apostle is now describing realizes that he has nothing in his heart or his behavior which he can offer to God as a reason why he ought to be saved. He disowns all his works, confesses that God is right in describing them as filthy rags, and hopes for salvation simply because God has promised it to all those who trust in His Son.
He follows this up by stating a very basic principle with which none can conceivably argue: to the man who works for a reward and earns it, that reward is not accounted to him as a gracious gift, but as a debt. It is like the position of a man who holds a job; that man does not thank the employer when he receives his paycheck at the end of the week. After all, he worked for it; he traded his time and labor for the monetary reward he is given. The man who works for salvation, if (hypothetically speaking) he successfully earned it, would have no reason to give everlasting praise to the grace of God. He would be able to frankly say in the presence of God Himself, “I need give no thanks for divine grace; I worked for this reward, and I have earned it by the goodness of my conduct.” God would owe such a man salvation, if he had behaved himself so perfectly as to earn the reward of salvation.
But that was not the case with Abraham, nor can it be the case with any sinner. God is no man’s debtor, and certainly will not be so in the realm of salvation. Only the proudest Pharisee could imagine standing in the blazing light of God’s glory, and attempting to claim the reward of eternal life based upon his own immaculate conduct. Of course, such a man could no more be received than that Pharisee who prayed in the temple opposite the publican in our Lord’s parable. The righteousness which he cherished so much is naught but filthy rags, and can never purchase admittance into God’s heaven.
To confirm his answer, Paul turns to the only infallible guide for the believer. He knew nothing of appeals to papal decrees, church tradition, or decisions of councils. For Paul, and all the apostles, and for the faithful in all generations, the final answer to all matters of religious dispute is, “What saith the scripture?” The Bible holds the answer as to whether Abraham were justified by works or by faith. And that answer is very clearly delivered in Genesis 15:6, which Paul quotes here: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.” In the Old Testament, translated directly from the Hebrew, the difference is only marginal: “He believed in the Lord, and He counted it to him for righteousness.” To believe God, and to believe in God, amounts to the same thing. To “believe God” may perhaps suggest more the idea of believing the word or promise of God, while believing “in God” may lend itself more to the idea of placing implicit confidence in God because of His immutably holy character. But, as I said, this all amounts to the same thing. One may believe the promises of God, as Abraham did, because of God’s character. His holiness makes it impossible for Him to lie, or to change His mind when once He has bound Himself by an oath.
There in Genesis 15, Abraham believed God’s promise that he would have an heir born from his own loins, though both he and his wife were past age. He believed that his seed would be multiplied as the stars of heaven. How much of the spiritual implications of the promise Abraham understood it would be impossible to state, yet there can be little doubt that he saw God’s promise as having reference to the Messiah who would descend from his posterity. After all, the Lord Jesus told His enemies, “Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it, and was glad.” Abraham, like all saints, be they in the old dispensation or the new, knew that the promises had their fulfillment in God’s redeemer, and thus he looked to Him by faith. Because of this faith, God imputed righteousness to Abraham, so that he may be accepted in the court of heaven. And this is the apostle’s entire point: Abraham was not justified before God because of the merit of his good works, but he received salvation simply through trusting in the promises of God. Paul’s aim is to show that this method of salvation is the same for every sinner in any part of the world as it was for Abraham.