The Great Exchange

Romans 4:5

October 17, 1999 | Ray Pritchard

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“However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Romans 4:5).

What’s your credit like with God? If God is the Great Creditor, are you “in the red” or “in the black” as far as he is concerned?

That question came to mind this week as I opened my mail at home. While sorting the envelopes into two piles, it seemed as if everything we received that day was either a credit card bill or an invitation to apply for more credit cards. Some of the invitations were quite seductive. Low interest rates, the opportunity to get “free” merchandise and special, super-discounts on certain items that I would probably never buy at any price.

The whole idea of a credit card is based on a person’s credit rating, meaning how much debt the lender thinks you can handle. The credit card companies want you to pay your debts back little by little so that they make money off the interest on the unpaid balance. You can only borrow as much as your credit rating allows. Or at least that’s how the system is supposed to work. (In reality, many people get into trouble by running up huge debts using many different credit cards).

Romans 4 asks us to consider how much credit we have with God. How’s our credit rating in heaven? The biblical answer is that we are all born spiritually bankrupt and spend our lives overdrawing on an account that is already far gone “in the red.” Our text tells us how we can get our lives out of spiritual debt and end up on the plus side of the ledger.

The Heart of the Gospel

Romans 4:5 brings us to the very heart of the gospel. If pressed, I think I would choose this as my favorite “gospel verse” in the New Testament. There is more than enough truth in this verse to save the whole world. Here we learn that God justifies wicked people who trust in him. He credits their account in heaven with the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Thus, the guilty are acquitted on the basis of what Jesus Christ did when he died on the cross and rose from the dead.

John Piper rightly points to a major problem with the concept that God acquits the guilty. Even though that is the gospel, it doesn’t square with how we do things in this life. How can God acquit the guilty when on earth we put judges in jail for doing the same thing? What God does by grace, we call a miscarriage of justice. How can it be right for God to do that? On what basis does God acquit the guilty?

In this verse we discover the answer to that question.

I. The Negative Requirement–”Who does not work”

We begin with an astounding statement. When God acquits the guilty, he first finds a person who isn’t working for his acquittal. God looks for people who don’t want to work for what they get. On the face of it, that’s a very un-American statement. Most of us have been raised to believe that nothing is truly free in life. You get what you work for. Work hard and you will be rewarded at the end of the day. If you don’t work, you won’t get ahead. True as that may be in everyday life, it’s not true when salvation is in view. In order for God to save you, you’ve got to stop working for it.

Lots of people (most people, actually) follow the Smith-Barney Religion—”We get our salvation the old-fashioned way. We earn it.” Or we’re like the man who says, “I’ll do my best and carry a rabbit’s foot for the rest.” Why you would want a rabbit’s foot is beyond me. After all, the rabbit’s foot wasn’t so lucky for the rabbit or else it would still be attached to him! What we mean is, we’ll do our best and trust that God will take care of the rest, as if salvation is simply hoping that God will “fill in the gaps” for you.

I heard of one preacher who said that being saved is like the frog in a pail of milk. He kept kicking until he churned a pat of butter. He hopped on the butter and then jumped out of the pail. The moral was: Just keep on paddling and everything will turn out okay. Again, that may be good advice for everyday life but it’s terrible advice regarding how to go to heaven. God’s salvation is not a do-it-yourself kit. If you want to go to heaven, the first step is to stop trying to earn your way there. You have to “stop working” and “start trusting” if you want to be saved.

Write it in big letters. When it comes to saving your soul, WORKS DON’T WORK!

The great English preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, said it this way: “If some of you plume yourselves with the notion that you are righteous, I pray God to pluck those fine feathers off you and make you see yourselves, for if you never see your own nothingness, you will never understand Christ’s all-sufficiency. Unless you are pulled down, Christ will never lift you up.”

II. The Positive Requirement–”But trusts God”

If God doesn’t want our “works,” what does he want from us? He wants us to trust him. That’s all. Nothing more, nothing less, nothing else. In the New Testament, faith, trust, and belief all come from the same general root word meaning “to lean wholly upon,” as when you lie down on a bed, resting your whole weight upon it. We are to trust God so completely that we take him at his Word regarding our salvation.

One crucial distinction must be made. To say that we must trust God does not mean that our faith is something we ourselves do. Faith is not a work that “merits” salvation. Faith is the condition, not the ground of salvation. Faith cannot save us unless our faith is based upon the Person and Work of the Lord Jesus Christ who died for our sins.

What is faith? Here are some answers:

Faith = Empty hands reaching out to God.

Faith = A channel for God’s grace to come to me.

Faith is like the wire bringing the electricity to us that causes the light to shine. Faith is the open window that lets the sunlight in. Where did the light come from? From the sun, not from the window. The window simply allows it to enter. By faith we open the windows of our heart to let the light of the gospel shine on us.

In my reading this week I came across this statement about saving faith. There are three things I must do to be saved: 1) I must acknowledge that even my faith to believe comes from God. 2) I must abandon all lingering notions of my own goodness. 3) I must cling only to the cross of Christ. And those three things are not “works” at all, but simply constituent parts of what it means to “trust God” for my salvation.

Faith is the hinge that joins the sinner to God. Faith looks to the cross and says, “That man died for me.” Faith cries out to God, “Be merciful to me, a sinner, for Jesus’ sake.” And God hears that prayer every time.

III. The Immediate Result–”Who justifies the wicked”

The word “justify” means to declare righteous. It comes from the courtroom and refers to the final verdict by which a judge declares that an accused person is “not guilty” and “innocent” of all charges. Applied to the spiritual realm, it means that God declares the believing sinner righteous on the basis of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Since Christ paid the penalty for the sinner, he is now righteous in the eyes of the Lord. Though he himself is truly guilty, through faith he receives the benefit of Christ’s death on his behalf. Jesus pays the penalty and the sinner goes free.

If you are justified, it means that in the record book by your name there are no black marks. It means the charges are dropped. There is no guilt, no penalty, no condemnation. Every demand of the law has been met in full.

It should be added that justification refers to a judicial declaration in heaven, not to an experience on earth. I may or may not “feel” justified just as a pardoned criminal may or may not “feel” pardoned, but feelings have nothing to do with it. When God says “Not Guilty,” I’m not guilty no matter how I feel.

Here are four words that describe justification: It is A) Complete—covers all we have done. There are no “half-pardons” with God, B) Divine—because it comes from God, C) Irreversible—because it is divine, and D) Free—received by grace through faith.

Our text tells us that God justifies the “wicked,” or as the King James has it, the “ungodly.” God justifies the ungodly! God justifies the wicked! About 60 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.

Come Just as You Are!

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 changes you from the inside out. But he saves you first, then he cleans you up!

This is the heart of evangelical Christianity, that our God justifies the wicked. Many people don’t come to Christ because they feel they aren’t good enough. They feel they are too lost in sin. They feel as if they are lost in sexual sin, lost in addiction to alcohol and drugs, trapped in anger or bitterness, chained forever to a terrible, destructive way of life. “You don’t know how I have been living.” No, I don’t, but let me tell you this: Our God is not in the business of justifying the good. He is in the business of justifying the bad. He doesn’t justify the righteous. He justifies the wicked, because that is the only category of people God has on earth to deal with. He justifies the wicked while they are still wicked. If you want to go to heaven, you’ve got to be bad. Good people need not apply.

God comes to wicked people, in free grace and rich mercy, and offers them a relationship with him through faith that will completely transform them from the inside out. He does this in spite of what they are, not even in consideration of what they will become. This is the miracle of the gospel, it is the heart of the “Good News” we preach to the world.

The verdict is just in from heaven and the bad news is, you are guilty. The good news is, Christ is entirely righteous. If you will accept those two verdicts, an amazing miracle will take place. Christ will take your guilt and you will receive his righteousness.

IV. The Divine Reckoning–”His faith is credited as righteousness”

The word “credited” 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.” You treat a person like a millionaire because they have a million dollars in their account. And you treat a person like a debtor who is overdrawn to the tune of one million dollars.

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 surpass 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 (actually, we never really stopped sinning even while we thought we were catching up. To borrow a phrase from a cartoon character, the harder we try, the behinder we get). The truth is, we never catch up. If God grades the human race on that basis, no one will ever make it to heaven.

Let me paraphrase Spurgeon at this point. If you believe in Jesus, if you have saving faith in him, all that Jesus accomplished in his death and resurrection is now credited to your account. You stand before God as if you were Christ because Christ stood before God as if he were you—he in your place, you in his place. Substitution! That is the word! Christ the Substitute for sinners: Christ standing for you and bearing the punishment for your sin, and you standing in Christ’s place, receiving all that belongs to him.

Perhaps an illustration will help. Last week I went shopping and did something I had never done before. I bought three pairs of girls’ socks—one red, one white, and one blue. When I preached this sermon, I called for a volunteer to come from the audience to help with a simple visual aid. I said that the blue sock would represent sin, the red sock would represent the blood of Christ, and the white sock the righteousness of Christ. Then I took the blue sock and put it over the volunteer’s left hand. That represents our sin. It covers us so completely that we are sinners through and through. If we attempt to come into God’s presence with our sin exposed, we will be judged and sent to hell. Then I put the red sock over the blue one. That represents the covering of our sin with the blood of Christ. Then I put the white sock over the red one, which is how God sees us in Christ. Once our sins are covered with the blood, God credits us with the righteousness of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s the miracle of the gospel.

Swapping Grades With Jesus

But that’s only part of the story. I then told each volunteer I had managed to find a copy of their transcript. They thought I meant from high school and were relieved when I told them “No, I had gotten a copy of their transcript from the ‘Principal’s Office’ in heaven.” Everyone laughed when I said that, but the news wasn’t good. In each case, the grades were the same:

Seeking God – F

Doing Good – F

Obeying God – F

Keeping the Law – F

Being Perfect – F

Not a pretty picture. When I asked, “How would you like it if we changed your grades?” each person eagerly agreed. Good news, I said. The valedictorian of the class was quite willing to switch grades. His name is Jesus Christ and he made an A in each class. Then I revealed the final grade:

God’s Honor Roll – A

The lesson is simple. If God gave you a report card on your life without Jesus Christ, it would be covered with black marks for all the sin you committed. Indeed, God gives you and the whole human race an F. You flunk every test. But when you come to Jesus, your F is washed away and your sins are gone.

But now what grade would God give you? You get the grade Christ earned because he finished his course as valedictorian of the class. You don’t squeak by with God. You make the honor roll. You go to the head of the class. Why? Because you are so good? No. Left to yourself you would still flunk every course. You get an A because you are united with Jesus Christ.

The same righteousness that once demanded that you get an F now demands that you get an A. You are not half justified and half condemned. You are not partially forgiven and partially punished. You are altogether forgiven. Your record is wiped clean. You are declared righteous in the eyes of God. That’s what justification is all about.


In this we see the simplicity of Christianity as compared with the religions of the world. Religion is spelled with two letters: “D-O.” Religion is a list of things people think they have to do in order to be accepted by God—go to church, give money, keep the Ten Commandments, say the Rosary, be baptized, pray every day. The list is endless. It’s always Do … Do … Do. If you want to go to heaven, you’re going to do something and keep on doing it until the day you die.

Christianity is spelled with four letters—”D-O-N-E.” Christianity is not based on what we do but upon what Jesus Christ has already done. If you want to go to heaven, you don’t have to do anything; you just have trust in what Jesus Christ has already done for you.

That’s the whole difference—Do versus Done. Either you do it yourself or you believe that Jesus Christ has already done it for you.

God has a simple proposition for you. If you admit you are wicked, he offers to declare you righteous. All you have to do is lay hold of Jesus. Only believe in him. Only trust in Him. Last week after I finished the sermon, a high school senior said, “Pastor Ray, you didn’t say, ‘Run to the Cross!’ I miss hearing you say it.” Good point. Let me say it clearly.

If you want to be saved, run to the Cross!

If you want to be forgiven, run to the Cross!

If you want a new life, run to the Cross!

If you want to be right with God, run to the Cross!

A Hymn by Horatius Bonar

This week I happened to run across these beautiful words penned by Horatius Bonar over 100 years ago.

Not what I feel or do

Can give me peace with God

Not all my prayers and sighs and tears

Can bear my awful load.

Thy work alone, O Christ,

Can ease this weight of sin;

Thy blood alone, O Lamb of God,

Can give me peace within.

Thy love to me, O Christ,

Not mine, O Lord, to thee,

Can rid me of this dark unrest

And set my spirit free.

I bless the Christ of God

I rest on love divine,

And with unfaltering lip and heart

I call this Savior mine.

Can you say, “I call this Savior mine?” Have you ever believed what God has said about his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ?

—He is the only Savior of the world.

—He came from heaven for you.

—He died on the cross paying the price for your sins.

—He rose from the dead on the third day.

—He is ready to forgive you.

—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?” When you get to heaven, 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.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?