But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.
We each need justification (to be declared righteous) because God is holy and our sins are against Him. We are anything but righteous. Only a brief reflection on our day’s activities through the lens of God’s Word reveals this. Long ago, Job asked, “How then can man be justified with God?” (Job 25:4 KJV). Romans 4:5 sits as one of the great texts of Scripture that teach us the answer to Job’s question.
Romans 3 closes by debunking fallacious thoughts that justification can be attained anywhere except through faith. Paul then expands those answers to the naysayer’s hypothetical questions starting in chapter 4 and running to chapter 5:12. Romans 4:5 is part of Paul’s dissection of the error of thinking that humans can boast in how they obtained salvation. Boasting in self is excluded by the principle of faith.
God Is Gracious, Not Indebted
Paul writes with Genesis 15:6 as the basis of his argument. It is an OT Scripture demonstrating that God credited Abraham as righteous on the condition of faith: Abraham “believed in the Lord; and he counted it to him for righteousness” (KJV). Does God owe righteousness to people based on their works, in the same way that an employer squares up with his employee on payday? This was not how Abraham had righteousness put to his account, nor has God ever justified anyone this way. God declared Abraham righteous when no hint of works was found associated with Abraham – only faith. To say our works count as merit and, consequently, God owes us a righteousness consistent with His character is foreign to Scripture and insults the holiness of God. It undermines the excellence of the redemption He made by Christ Jesus.
Faith, Not Our Works
It is not works that justified Abraham. Maybe OT sacrifices justified some? Maybe circumcision justified some? Abraham lived prior to the law and sacrificial requirements. God also ensured that His Word pointedly declare Abraham righteous in Genesis 15 before circumcision was instituted in Genesis 17. His justification before circumcision disqualifies the theory that religion can have value before God (Rom 4:9-12). Abraham didn’t need this for justification and neither does anyone else.
What about once the Mosaic law was introduced? Paul has that angle covered, as the Spirit of God carries his thoughts to David in Psalm 32. He carefully notes that where David speaks of not having sins put to his account, it was apart from works. Even David, a man after God’s own heart, could produce no action worthy of earning righteousness consistent with God’s character. Justification only comes to someone that believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, even in the OT.
Righteousness on the Condition of Faith
It is important to understand that there is no merit in faith, yet God requires faith. Faith, in itself, is of no value. It is easy for many to put faith as the object of their faith. We see the word “believe” by itself on signs and billboards. Yet righteousness before God is not found in the value of faith but in the value of the object of faith: the Son of God. God credits righteousness to the ungodly on the basis of the death of His Son, on the condition of faith.