April 26, 1992
In your opinion, who is the most honored person in human history? If we could take a Gallup Poll of the entire human race, what name do you suppose would appear at the top of the list?
The question tantalizes the mind because it asks for something very specific. Out of the billions and billions of people who live on the earth, who would rank as the most honored person of all time? Immediately a few names pop into the mind, names that fall into one of three categories—great military leaders, great political figures or great religious leaders. Whoever is chosen must have an appeal that goes across cultural, racial and religious boundaries. He (or she) must be a person beloved by people in every part of the globe. What person could fill that bill?
Let’s try a few names out. Buddha? No, he’s too Asian. Abraham Lincoln? No, he’s too American. Napoleon? No, he’s too European. Plato? No, he’s too Greek. Mohammed? No, he’s too Arab. Moses? No, he’s too Jewish. How about Karl Marx? Maybe he would have worked a few years ago, but you wouldn’t get too many takers today. The same goes for Mao-Tse-Tung, the late and soon-to-be-forgotten leader of Communist China.
What about Jesus Christ? Surely he would rank as the most honored person in history. His support is certainly global. It certainly crosses racial and cultural barriers. If you change the question just slightly, to ask for the most influential person in human history, then Jesus Christ wins hands down. But is Jesus Christ the most honored person in history? The answer might be yes. But clearly there are millions and billions of people who do not honor him in our day.
Is it possible to find someone who is honored and revered even more than Jesus Christ? I think the answer is yes. There is one man who is revered by fully one-half the world’s population. He is honored as the man from whose loins sprang forth three of the world’s great religions. From this one man came Christianity—with 1.5 billion followers, Islam with 1 billion followers and Judaism with 15 million followers.
His name is Abraham. By any consideration, he stands head and shoulders above the rest of the human race. It would be difficult to find a man who has influenced our world to this day more than he has. Without a doubt he is one of the most beloved figures in the history of the world.
All About Abraham
That helps explain why Paul suddenly brings up Abraham in Romans 4. I say “suddenly” because Romans 4 might well be titled “All About Abraham.” He is the subject of verse 1 and verse 25 and every verse in between. But he’s not mentioned at all before this chapter. What’s going on here? Why the sudden interest in Abraham? What does he have to do with the book of Romans? Why bring him up at this point?
There are three answers to that question:
To gain credibility. One of Paul’s main concerns was to answer Jewish objections to the doctrine of justification by faith apart from the works of the law. One of the best ways to do that was to bring up the example of Abraham because every Jew would easily relate to him. He was revered as the father of the Jewish nation and as the pattern of what a godly man should be. He was the man whom God had personally chosen to start the line of Israel. All agreed that Abraham was truly justified; the only question was how. The Jews would agree that whatever was true of him must also be true of them—”like father, like son.”
To prove his doctrine was not a novelty. In the preceding verses Paul has already answered many of the Jewish objections. But a big one still remains. From the back of the hall a Jewish hand shoots up and says, “What you are saying about justification by faith may well be true. But even if it is, it’s an entirely new teaching. This isn’t what the rabbis taught us; it isn’t what the Old Testament taught us. We didn’t learn this from Abraham and David. This contradicts what our Scriptures teach us.” If that objection were allowed to stand, no Jew would pay attention to Paul’s teaching. Therefore Paul reaches back into Jewish history, all the way back to the beginning to bring forward the case of the founder of the Jewish nation. If he was justified by faith apart from works, then Paul’s teaching could not be said to be a novelty.
To illustrate from history. All great teachers know that to win a hearing you have to put flesh on the bones of your teaching. You need illustrations from real life. That’s what Paul is doing here. By bringing up Abraham he shows in detail how justification by faith works out in the life of one particular man.
From Abraham to Us
As we study the first eight verses of Romans 4, we find that they break down into three basic questions—questions that begin with Abraham and end with us.
How Was Abraham Saved? 1-3
What Difference Does it Make? 4-5
What Happens to My Sin When I Trust Christ as Savior? 6-8
I. How Was Abraham Saved?
Paul answers this question two ways, first negatively, then positively.
A. Not by Works 1-2
“What shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter?” In the original text, the last phrase is literally “according to the flesh.” What did Abraham discover “according to the flesh?” That is, when Abraham looked at his human resources—his moral courage, his high standards, his innate human goodness, his gifts and talents—what did he discover about them? Could those things save him? The answer is No.
“If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, (Here you should insert the phrase—”And he was not.” Paul is discussing a hypothetical possibility.) he has something to boast about—but not before God.” This verse means that even if Abraham boasted about his human resources, it wouldn’t do him any good with God because God isn’t impressed with that kind of boasting. No one is truly good enough to boast in the presence of God. No one can say, “God, you’re lucky to have me on your side.”
Here is a question we must all wrestle with. What do you find when you look at your human resources? Is it enough to save you? If you are honest, the answer must also be No. But many people never come to that point of total honesty. We live the other way because the world lives the other way. The world puts us on a performance standard. We’re taught from the day we’re born to look to the things we do in order to find our self-respect, our self-worth and our sense of significance.
More than that, we live in a world where works are instantly rewarded. The message is always: “What have you done for me lately?” What book have you written, what project have you completed, what deal have you closed, what account have you opened, what building have you built, what paper have you written, what verdict have you won, what experiment have you completed? The pressure is on for more production, more profit, more performance. Do more and do it now!
Too many of us subconsciously think like this:
“I’m good because I closed a deal.”
“I’m significant because I got straight A’s.”
“I’m okay because I got a big raise at work.”
There’s only one problem with that kind of thinking. God isn’t impressed by your outward performance. Why? Because God doesn’t look on the outside; he looks on the heart. When he looks inside your heart, he sees why you do what you do. He sees the greed, the anger, the manipulation, the fear, the ruthlessness, the unkindness, the power plays, the shady deals. He also hears the secret thoughts you think when you know no one else can hear you. He listens while you mumble under your breath. He knows how you lust for power and fame and glory. He knows why you do what you do! Nothing is hidden from him.
Works don’t work! You can’t fool God by your performance. He judges your motives, not just your actions. And when your life is judged by that strict standard, you don’t look so good, do you?
So what happens when we try to gain self-worth on the basis of our performance? We become performance junkies, trying to do more and more things to prove that we measure up. We become addicted to work, looking to outward accomplishment to satisfy the gnawing emptiness in our souls. Performance doesn’t last. Just ask any football coach. You’re only as good as your last game. Or your last deal. Or your last operation. Or your last term paper. Or your last book. Or your last report card. Or your last big sale.
Works don’t work because they don’t last! So you have to do more and more and more. Eventually you come to the end and you can’t do any more. What then?
What we need is a righteousness that isn’t based on our works, a righteousness that is wholly unrelated to our performance, a righteousness that comes from outside ourselves. What we need is the righteousness of God himself, a right standing that provides a basis for self-worth that is not based on our human performance.
That’s what Abraham discovered “according to the flesh.” He discovered that his human resources would never save him. How then was Abraham saved if not by works?
B. But by Faith 3
Here we come to the heart of Paul’s argument. “What does the Scripture say? ’Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’” Paul quotes Genesis 15:6, a verse James Montgomery Boice says is the most important verse in the whole Bible for the doctrine of salvation. This is the first verse that brings three topics together—faith, justification and righteousness.
I’m sure you remember the context. God told Abraham that at the age of 85 he was about to have children. Abraham thought he was kidding. “What kind of joke is this?” “It’s no joke, Abraham. You’re going to have a son.” “Lord, you don’t understand, I lost that ability years ago.” “Don’t worry, just trust me and I will work a miracle on your behalf.”
That’s exactly what happened. God took Abraham outside and said, “Look up!” Abraham looked up and God said, “Count the stars.” As Abraham began counting, God said, “Before I’m through, I will give you more descendants than the stars in the skies.” Does that sound crazy? I’ll tell you something crazier than that. Abraham believed God! That’s really crazy.
Note the word “credited.” It comes from the Greek logizomai, which itself is related to our English word “logic.” Logizomai is essentially a bookkeeping term. It means “to credit to one’s account.” It’s what happens when you deposit money in the bank. If you bring a $1000 check, the teller “credits” your account with one thousand dollars. In the same way, if you write a check for $250, the teller debits your account by that amount. In this context, the word means to “credit one’s account and to treat accordingly.” It means to treat a person like a millionaire because they have a million dollars in their account. It means to treat a person like a debtor who is overdrawn to the tune of one million dollars.
Let me illustrate. Let’s suppose that God keeps a record of the entire human race—one page for each person. On the left side of the divine ledger, he writes down the sins we commit. On the right side, he notes the good things we do. Most people hope that by the time they die, the good will outweigh the bad and God will allow them into heaven on that basis. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. The good column will never outweigh the bad column. We’re always more sinful than we are good. And just about the time we think we’ve been good enough to catch up with our sins, we start sinning again and fall even farther behind. The truth is, you never catch up! If God grades the human race on that basis, no one will ever make it to heaven.
So how was Abraham saved? He believed God and his faith—his trust, his confidence in God’s promise—that faith was “credited” to his account in heaven. In one glorious moment, his “debt” column was wiped out and his “credit” column reached to heaven. In the blink of an eye, Abraham became a spiritual millionaire.
Why? Because he was a good man? No!
Because he was bold? No!
Because he was a nice guy? No!
Because he was wise? No!
Because he was intrepid? No!
Because he was morally strong? No!
Because he was righteous? No!
Abraham was justified for one reason and one reason only: Because he believed God! When he was old and childless, when he had no human reason to believe God, when everything argued against him, Abraham believed God! That faith was “credited” to his account. God declared him righteous wholly apart from his works.
That answers the first question. How was Abraham saved? He was saved by faith wholly apart from works of any kind.
II. What Difference Does It Make?
That brings us immediately to a second question. What difference does it make? So what if Abraham was saved by faith? What does that mean for me? Paul now answers that question by showing us two clear implications—each of which helps explain the significance of Abraham’s faith.
A. If salvation is by works, then heaven is a reward, not a gift. 4
Paul’s argument is very simple: “Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as as gift, but as an obligation.” That’s easy to understand. When you go to work, your paycheck isn’t a “gift.” It’s a reward for hard work. How would you feel next payday if your boss handed your paycheck to you with the words, “Here’s a gift for you.” You’d say, “Gift, nothing! I earned that paycheck.” Remember, it’s not a gift if you have to work for it.
It’s the same way with salvation. If you have to work for it, it’s not a gift. You’ve earned it. If salvation is by works, then God owes you heaven.
“We Have to Work Hard to Get to Heaven”
I’m constantly surprised at the number of people who look at salvation that way—as a reward to be earned and not a gift to be received. A few days ago a friend gave me a copy of a newspaper called the Catholic Twin Circle dated Sunday, January 5, 1992. On page 5 there is a fascinating interview entitled “A Century With God.” Here are a few excerpts from that article:
At 108 years of age, Charlie Shebanek of Richmond, Calif., may be the oldest Catholic in the United States. But he has a busier prayer life that most Catholics half his age… . During the day … he says the rosaries on an ancient set of beads. He likes Our Lady. He also likes St. David and prays to him… . But when asked who St. David was, he said, “Gee, I’m darned if I know! But I’ve been praying to him for years.”
Charlie’s theology is simple and to the point. “The Catholic religion is the only religion worth a hill of beans.”
(I am not offended in the least by that statement. In fact, I rather like it because I tend to like people who know what they believe. I think Charlie and I would get along just fine!)
He is trying to get in shape for that final meeting with his Creator. “It’s taken me 106 years,” he states, “but I’ve finally stopped using profanities. And I’ve never been drunk in my life—not once.” …
“We are all born under the curse that Adam and Eve brought on us, so we have to work hard to go to heaven. That’s the only purpose of our lives—not fame or fortune. I’m living in hope that when I die, I’ll go to heaven, according to the laws of God.” (p. 5)
As I read that story, I began to like Charlie Shebanek. He’s obviously a crusty old bird—you have to be to live to be 108 years old. But he clearly has a sense of humor, he knows that he won’t live forever, and he’s getting ready to meet the Lord.
Why mention him in this context? Because he represents so many people in the world today. Did you notice what he said? “We are all born under the curse that Adam and Eve brought on us.” That’s true, and all Christians would agree with him. But next to that excellent statement is one that is tragically wrong: “We have to work hard to go to heaven.” No, no, a thousand times no!
That’s what Romans 4 is arguing against. You don’t have to work hard to go to heaven.
Charlie’s theology is so close … and yet so far from the truth. He’s obviously sincere, but when it comes to salvation, sincerity isn’t enough. I pray that before he dies, God will open his eyes to see that it’s not how hard you work, but whether or not you trust Jesus Christ alone for your salvation.
B. If salvation is by faith, then even the ungodly can be saved, because their faith is credited as righteousness. 5
In verse 5 Paul gives us one of the clearest statements of the gospel in the New Testament: “However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.” What an incredible verse this is! “To the man who does not work.” Not only do works not contribute to our salvation, God forbids them altogether!
Compare that with what Charlie Shebanek said:
“We have to work hard to get to heaven.”
“To the man who does not work.”
There is an eternal difference here. Either you work to get to heaven or you don’t work at all! Both cannot be right. Millions agree with Charlie Shebanek. But I agree with the Apostle Paul. Salvation comes to those who do not work for it.
Bad People in Heaven?
Note the word “wicked” or as the King James has it, the “ungodly.” God justifies the ungodly! God justifies the wicked! About 30 or 40 years ago someone wrote a very popular gospel tract with this intriguing title: Ungodly People: The Only Kind God Saves. That’s the very essence of Romans 4:5. God saves the ungodly while they are still ungodly!
Oh, how we fight against this fact. Many people think God wants good people in heaven, so they spend their lives trying to be good enough to go there when they die. Wrong! God doesn’t want good people in heaven. He wants bad people in heaven so that by saving bad people he can demonstrate the greatness of his grace.
So many of us are mixed up on this point. We think God is saying, “Clean up your act and then I’ll save you.” Or we think God is saying, “I’ll clean up your act and then I’ll save you.” God never says any such thing! He says something entirely different:
“I’ll save you while you are still dirty and then I’ll help you clean up your act.”
God says, “While you are still dirty, I’ll give you the righteousness of Jesus Christ.” Mark it down. God saves the ungodly while they are still ungodly. That’s the miracle of justification.
And when you come to Christ—still dirty and unclean—not only does he save you, but he begins an inner process of cleansing that cleans you up from the inside out. But he saves you first, then he cleans you up!
Let me illustrate. Hold up your right hand, letting it represent the Lord Jesus Christ. Now cover your right hand with a clean white handkerchief. Let that represent the perfect, pure and spotless righteousness of Jesus Christ. Now hold up your left hand, letting it represent you in all your sinfulness.
As long as your left hand is uncovered, when God looks down from heaven, all he sees is your sinfulness—your evil, your wicked deeds, your greed, your anger, your bitterness, your lies, your broken promises, and all the other ways you have failed God over the years. That’s what he sees! Your sin is ever before him because you have no “righteousness” to cover your sin. You stand naked before the Lord—naked and condemned. As long as your sin is “uncovered” before the Lord, he is forced to condemn you.
Now take your left hand and move it under the handkerchief, clasping your right hand at the same time. Where is your left hand now? It is invisible because it is under the white handkerchief. That’s what happens when you trust Jesus Christ. When you by faith are joined with Jesus Christ, his righteousness “covers” your sin. What does God see when he looks at you? He sees the righteousness of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. He doesn’t see your sin.
That’s why God is able to save the ungodly while they are still ungodly. When they are joined by faith to Jesus Christ, the righteousness of Christ covers their sin. God no longer sees their sin; he only sees the righteousness of his Son.
We now come to the third and final question in this passage—where the truth becomes very personal.
III. What Happens to My Sin When I Trust Christ as Savior?
In verses 6-8 Paul brings in a second Old Testament heavyweight. He quotes the words of King David in Psalm 32. The reason is not hard to find: After Abraham, David was the most respected man in Jewish history. What’s more, since Abraham lived before the law while David lived under the law, if they both agree on justification by faith, then Paul’s argument becomes airtight.
Psalm 32 is part of David’s confession to God after his terrible sin with Bathsheba. He writes while his hands are still red with the blood of Uriah the Hittite. At first he tried to “cover” his own sin by pretending it didn’t happen. But that brought him only agony, pain and overwhelming guilt. Eventually he came to his senses and confessed everything to God. The verses Paul quotes deal with the blessedness David discovered as he confessed his sin and God freely forgave him.
Paul introduces the quotation with these words in verse 6: “David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works.” In other words, David’s experience was the same as Abraham’s. And both agree with Paul!
Then the quotation itself in verses 7-8: “Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him.”
Three Words For Forgiveness
So what happens to your sin when you trust Christ as Savior? Paul (quoting David) tells us that three things happen.
1. It is Forgiven. 7a
“Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven.” The word means to “send away.” It has the idea of physical removal from one location to another. When God forgives you, he removes your sins from you and takes them so far away that you will never be able to find them again.
2. It is Covered. 7b
“Whose sins are covered.” The word means to “cover so completely that it can never be uncovered again.” The picture behind the word relates to the sprinkling of the blood of a sacrifice by the high priest on the Mercy Seat on top of the Ark of the Covenant on the yearly Day of Atonement. Although the picture is unfamiliar to us, all Jews instinctively understood it. By the sprinkling of the blood, the high priest was unknowingly acting out a picture of the bloody death of Jesus Christ. The message is clear: The blood of Jesus is so powerful that it completely covers all your sins. All means all. If you have trusted Christ, your sins are covered—yesterday, today, tomorrow and forever.
3. It is Not Counted Against You. 7c
“Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him.” This brings us back to the word logizomai, which means “to credit to one’s account.” In this context, it means that once you trust Christ, your sin will never be counted against you. God will not credit your sin to your account. Why? Because your sin is now “credited” to Christ’s account and his righteousness is now “credited” to your account.
Think of what is being said here. Your sins are …
Forgiven. Total Removal.
Covered. Total Covering.
Not Counted Against You. Total Disappearance.
Let’s put both sides of the truth together with one final illustration. We begin by supposing that somehow you owe the bank a million dollars. You promise the bank that you will pay back your debt at the rate of $10 per week. On a given day you come to the bank, ready to make your $10 payment. When you hand over the ten dollar bill, the teller checks your account and says, “Sir, according to our records, you don’t owe any money at all. In fact, someone has paid your debt and deposited a million dollars in your account.”
For a moment you say nothing, stunned by your sudden good fortune. Who could have done such a thing? Who would have the money to pay the million dollars you owe plus put a million dollars extra into your account? The answer comes as a man steps out of the shadows. His name is Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire. “Son, I paid your debt for you, and then I decided to give you a little spending money besides.” You say, “Mr. Perot, you shouldn’t have. I’ll try to pay you back someday.” To which the answer comes, “Don’t worry. I’m a billionaire. I’ve got so much money I don’t know how to spend it all. Don’t even think about paying it back. It’s a gift.”
Could such a thing happen? Yes—at least in my dreams! Ross Perot is a billionaire and he truly does have enough money to do that. In fact, he’s got enough money to do that for 1000 or perhaps 1500 different people. But eventually even the great Ross Perot would run out of money.
Not so with Jesus Christ. Ross Perot is a pauper compared to him. His righteousness is so great, his blood is so effective, his blood is so powerful, that he can wipe away all your sins and give you his perfect righteousness besides.
Ross Perot can’t do that. Eventually he will come to the end of his resources. But Jesus Christ never runs out of righteousness. He can pay the debt you owe and give you righteousness beyond your fondest dreams. And he can do it for you and for every other person in the world because his righteousness is infinite and his blood never loses its power.
That’s why Dr. James Montgomery Boice is absolutely right when he says that the most important word in this passage is “Never.”
Never means never, and it must be taken at full value here, even though the opposite is almost always the case in human relationships. We all know the kind of forgiveness in which a person reluctantly accepts our apology and says that he will forgive us. But we know as he says this that he is not forgetting what happened, that our offense will linger in his mind and will probably be brought out against us in the future… .
This text tells us that God is not like that. It tells us that once he has forgiven us for our sin through Christ, he will never, never bring it up to us again. He will not bring it up in this life, never remind us of something in the past. He will always begin with us precisely where we are in the present. And he will never bring it up in the day of judgment. Why? Because it is truly forgiven. It will never be remembered anymore. (Romans, Volume 1, p. 451.)
Many of you have heard this truth expressed in a familiar gospel chorus:
Gone, gone, gone, gone,
Yes my sins are gone.
Now my soul is happy,
In my heart’s a song.
Buried in the deepest sea,
Yes that’s good enough for me.
I will live eternally.
Praise God, my sins are gone.
Can you say that? Is that your testimony? Can you sing with assurance that your sins are truly gone forever? You can if you know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.
Two Final Conclusions
Let’s wrap this up with two summary statements:
1. When it comes to salvation, faith and works are mutually exclusive.
If you want to be saved by works, then have at it. Go to Sunday School, get baptized, give your money, live by the Golden Rule, be a good citizen, give to the United Way, follow the Ten Commandments, do your best every single day. In the end, you will be sadly disappointed. If that’s your decision, then you have to live with the consequences.
But if you want to be saved by faith, then cling to Jesus Christ and to him alone. As the old hymn says, “Lay your deadly “Doing” down.” You can have faith … or you can have works, but you can’t have them both. When it comes to salvation, faith rules out works and works rule out faith.
2. The true sons of Abraham are those who share Abraham’s faith.
Years ago I learned a children’s chorus that we used to sing over and over, adding new motions each time we sang it. “Father Abraham had many sons. Many sons had father Abraham. And I am one of them, and so are you. So let’s just praise the Lord.” Part of that chorus is true. Father Abraham does indeed have many “sons,” and many “daughters” too. Are you a true son of Abraham? You are if you have the same faith Abraham had.
The Bible says that Abraham believed God. Have you ever done that? Have you ever believed what God has said about his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ?
—that he is the only Savior of the world.
—that he came from heaven for you.
—that he died on the cross paying the price for your sins.
—that he rose from the dead on the third day.
—that he is ready to forgive your sins.
—that he wants to give you his perfect righteousness.
God has said all those things about his Son. Have you ever said, “Yes, Lord, I believe those things to be true?” Those who believe are the true sons and daughters of Abraham. When you get to heaven, you will discover that what you always believed turned out to be true. You will discover that God was as good as his Word. In the end, it is your faith—not your works—that God counts as righteousness.