Sermon preached on Romans 4:1-8 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 7/8/2012 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“But to Him Who Does Not Work”
With the problems with our economy today, many people are thankful just to have a job. And when you put in your hours and get your paycheck at the end, you are probably again thankful that you have a job. And yet, when you get that paycheck, you probably don’t go up to your boss and thank him profusely that you actually got paid. You don’t act like it was a gift when he paid you, because, well, it wasn’t. You earned that paycheck. When you earn an honest living and get paid for you work, that paycheck is not a gift. It’s what you have merited.
Well, I mention this today as a contrast. It’s actually the contrast given in verses 4-5. What Paul has been talking about, and what we’ll talk about here today is not about what you’ve earned. It’s not about what you have merited. When Paul has been talking about our justification, it’s the opposite of that. We receive justification as a gift. We are not owed it. We’ve done nothing to deserve it. That will be our focus today.
Paul deals with this truth today with the concept of imputation. He discusses this concept in general here, and what it has to say about our justification. But he also makes it clear that this is not something unique to the New Testament Christian. He also gives two examples of Old Testament saints. He’ll show that the same concept of imputation and justification by faith is at work in their lives. And so that will be our outline for today’s message. We’ll consider first the general concept of imputation described here. Second, we’ll see how this was the same with Abraham. Third, we’ll see how this was also something true for King David. That’s our outline for today.
So let’s begin first with discussing this concept of imputation. Specifically, I’m referring to the imputation of righteousness. Righteousness is imputed to us through faith. By putting our faith in God’s saving work in Christ, we have righteousness imputed to us. Now, I’ve already used the word imputation many times so far today, and I’ve not yet given a definition to that big word. Let me do that now. Imputation, as Paul is using the word here, is about attributing or ascribing something to someone. You account something to someone. Verses 6 and 8 in our pew Bibles have that exact word in English. Verse 6 references the imputing of righteousness. Verse 8 references the Lord not imputing sin. But the same Greek word in verses 6 and 8 actually appears 5 times in our passage for today. That’s why we are honing in on this concept today. Verses 3, 4, 5, 6, and 8 all have this same Greek word. The other references are translated with the word “counted” or “accounted”. That’s probably an easier word for our minds to wrap around, but it’s the same concept. Paul goes on to use this same Greek word 6 more times in the rest of this chapter. This chapter wants to tell us about imputation!
Well, I’ve started to define imputation in a very general way. But let’s make sure we understand what’s imputed. Its righteousness that’s imputed. That’s what’s attributed to our account. The opposite is said at the end of this passage, that sin is not imputed to our account. That’s the flipside to this. Now, as we’ve been going along in Romans, it might seem like this is nothing new being said. In some sense this is true. What we are still talking about is the larger subject of justification. Justification by faith. Justification that says we are declared righteous by faith in Christ. But you see Paul is spending the first half of the book of Romans to give us a full orbed definition of what our justification is all about. One concept embedded in justification, is this concept of imputation. And by talking about it, we understand more about the nature of our overall justification.
Let’s look at verses 4-5 to flush this out better. Verse 4 is that analogy I began today with. “Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt.” In other words, when you work, you earn something. You merit it. Your compensation then is not a gift, it’s an obligation; a debt as it says here. The employer owes the wages to the employee. However, the contrast is then given in verse 5. That’s when Paul brings this home to the subject of justification. Verse 5, “But to him who does not work but believes on him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.” In other words, working is contrasted with faith here. Work earns wages and therefore obligates the employer. Faith does not earn righteousness; God is not strictly obligated by any merit of faith. That’s because we are the ungodly as it says here. The ungodly is also known as the unrighteous. However, the good news is that nonetheless God counts the person with faith as righteous. Since our faith is not like the wage, we realize that this is a gift. It’s grace. Faith doesn’t deserve to be accounted as righteous. But it is. That’s why we say the gospel is about grace. When we have faith in Christ, righteousness is imputed to us. Righteousness is credited to our account. We are reckoned, considered, righteous. The ungodly who turn in faith to God, are counted as something they are not inherently. Something is attributed to them which they do not have on their own: righteousness.
A helpful contrast here is what Paul will say later in Romans 6:23. There he’ll talk again about wages. He’ll say that the wages of sin is death! In other words, what we’ve earned is death. We’ve not earned to be accounted righteous. Our sin means that we have a debt owed to us. That debt is death and condemnation. But again, that’s what makes all this such good news. As it says in verse 8, we do not have sin imputed us, if we have faith. We have righteousness imputed to us.
Now again it might be helpful to note a fine distinction here. Here, Paul doesn’t explicitly clarify the distinction of faith being the instrument for this imputation of righteousness, and not the grounds for our imputation. Most specifically here in this passage, it’s a one to one correspondence. Our faith receives righteousness. If one has this faith, then they are considered righteous. But the implied truth in all of this, is that faith is only the instrument. If our faith was the grounds of this imputed righteousness, then it means that faith has earned it. But since faith has not earned this righteousness, we realize that faith cannot be the grounds for having this righteousness imputed. Rather as we learn elsewhere in Romans, it’s Christ’s righteousness that’s the grounds. Romans 5:18-19 for example. By Christ’s righteousness we are justified as a free gift.
Let me help explain this all yet further, just to bring great clarity to this gospel truth. The idea of imputation of righteousness through our faith, means that we are not inherently righteous when we are justified. Maybe that’s very clear to us all now, but I want to drive home that point. You see, that’s part of the significance of the imputation concept. The imputation concept is that we are reckoned righteous, considered righteous, accounted as righteous, when we are not. What we are inherently at that moment is a believer. We have faith. That can be said of us. But that faith serves instrumentally speaking, to be seen by God as righteousness. Accepted in its place. And yet being a believer, and being righteous, is not the same thing. Having faith, does not inherently make one righteous, if we understand righteousness as perfectly keeping all of God’s laws. But that’s the imputation idea here at work. We are accounted righteous, reckoned righteous, because of our faith. Faith in Christ. Faith in his propitiation. Righteous by faith, but not in our actual living. But counted as such in our standing before God. Righteous in this way, by a gift; by grace accepting our faith as righteousness when faith is not the same as righteousness.
Hopefully this concept is becoming more clear. Paul has said this is the gospel of Jesus Christ. But now Paul in this passage shows that this gospel was operating even in the Old Testament. Yes, there it operated from a distance. It operated through promises. The promise ultimately of the coming seed of Abraham and David. The promise of the Messiah who would secure salvation for those who have faith. That God could be both just and the justifier of the one who has this faith. And yet Paul says that this idea of justification by faith was always at work among God’s people. Paul uses the examples of Abraham and David to show that the people of God have always found salvation in the same fundamental way. It’s not like Abraham and David and others in the Old Testament were saved in one way, and Christians now are saved in some different, better, way. Fundamentally, there is only one way man is saved. And it’s a salvation by faith. And so Paul uses the concept of imputation of righteousness by faith, to show that’s how both Abraham and David found their justification.
Let’s consider first Father Abraham. This is verses 1 through 3. Remember the context from last passage. We saw that believers have no reason to boast, because we don’t earn salvation by our own works. Verses 1 and 2 bring that question even back to Abraham. This is Paul really driving home this point to the Jews of his day. The Jewish rabbis of his day had a very high view of Abraham. There are some records of Jews trying to say that Abraham was righteous in some kind of absolute sense. That he somehow stood out as father of all the Jews and that God picked him because of some special righteousness in Abraham. There’s record even of some of these Rabbis appealing to Genesis 15:6 in making that case. That’s the same verse Paul quotes in verse 3. Verse 3, “For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’” And so Paul is not beating around the bush here. He’s not just acting like him and the unbelieving Jews were close or on the same page. No, he hits them hard right where they needed to be challenged. He quotes Genesis 15:6 and then he interprets this passage in Genesis with what he says in verses 4 and 5. We’ve already talked about verses 4 and 5 so we’ll just simplly apply that here. Abraham was justified by faith. Abraham had faith, and it says that because of it, God imputed righteousness to him. That’s the whole point, Paul says, of Genesis 15:6. Abraham didn’t have a righteousness of his own, that’s why his faith had to be accounted to him for righteousness.
Don’t get me wrong. Abraham did express his faith with righteous actions. For example, when God called him to leave his home land for a distant country, he had to trust God. He had to act in faith. That was certainly a good thing. Obeying God to be circumcised, or sacrifice his son – those were commendable actions. And yet Abraham is like all humans – he was not perfect. So for example on those times when he acted like Sarah was not his wife in order to protect his own life, those weren’t good things. No, Abraham was not perfect. No one is righteous, no not one. But the point is that his faith is accounted to him as righteousness. He himself was not perfectly righteous, but God deemed him as righteous in light of his faith. He deemed him to be something he was not, in light of his faith. Again, God imputed righteousness on account of his faith. This is imputation at work.
And so Abraham had the same fundamental kind of salvation that we as Christians have. The father of God’s chosen people, was saved the same way all his chosen people are, you and me included. Let’s look then at the example of King David. This is verses 6-8. Paul makes it clear that he’s talking about the same thing with David per verse 6. Notice the world “just as” and “also”. Just as David describes the blessedness of the man whom God imputes righteousness apart from works. What Abraham had is the same thing that David had, and what Christians have, and actually what all the saved in the Old Testament had.
Paul again quotes the Old Testament to make this point with David. This quote is a psalm David wrote. It’s Psalm 32, verses 1 and 2. “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; Blessed is the man to whom the LORD shall not impute sin.” And so here we see more of the idea of the pardon of sin, and the atonement or covering of sin. But we also see the imputation idea again raised. As mentioned, here the psalm talks about it in reverse. Sin is not imputed to believers. In other words, the guilt and condemnation that comes along with sin is not credited to our account – though it should be. Again, this is grace. Paul equates this with the imputation of righteousness in verse 6. Same essential thing put in the opposite complementary direction.
Again, someone could be tempted at first to try to make David’s justification before God based on his own works. He was the King God chose because he was a man after God’s own heart. Scripture paints David very favorably in his commendable spirit. Many things could be said of his righteousness. And yet, as soon as we mention that, we could also mention David’s sin of adultery with Bathsheba, and murder with Uriah. We could mention how he sinfully conducted a census and God’s disapproval of that. These are examples of David’s sin. On the one hand, he looked to live for the Lord, as God’s anointed king. On the other hand, he was not perfect. He had sin. He was not perfectly righteous. What would become of him? Well, God forgave him of his sin. David looked to God in faith for forgiveness. For the imputation of righteousness. In other words, this psalm records how David recognized what Paul is talking about. Man is guilty by their own record. But we find forgiveness and grace and pardon in God. That’s where David put his trust, and it was accounted to him as righteousness.
As true as this is, of course, Paul’s reference to David is actually more broad than that. He quotes David not only to mention how David himself found this to be personally true. His quote of David is showing that David acknowledges that this was something others could find as well. David’s psalm here is actually a benediction. He’s pronouncing blessing on all who have found this forgiveness. David’s pronouncing blessing on all who’ve had this imputation of righteousness by faith. The believers in the Old Testament found this; David says they were blessed.
And that’s where this all comes back to us. This imputation of righteousness by faith is not something just for Paul. It’s not something just for Abraham and David. It was for all the saints of old. And if believers in the past could find this imputed righteousness by faith, then you and me can find this. In fact, that is what we in the church have found. We have been counted as righteous, a righteousness not of our own; it is a gift of God through faith in Christ. Righteousness through faith. Righteousness that’s not inherent to us. And yet what a wonderful standing of righteousness it is.
And so then my application to us is simple. It’s a word of encouragement to you today. It’s a word of blessing. Blessed are you people of God. Blessed are you whose lawless deeds are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed are you to whom the LORD shall not impute sin. In Christ, you are blessed. And you have this blessing as grace. Verse 4 means that if we have been justified by faith not works, then its’ all about grace. People of faith, you have this grace then too! Blessings and grace. Blessings in and through the grace! Blessings to you! Grace to you! You are righteous in Christ, through faith! Be encouraged again today. Be built up again today. Leave energized and full of joy today that God has not imputed your sins against you! Take this big word of imputation and let it be your slogan of encouragement again today!
Let me close with one final thought. Back then many Jews put much pride and stock into people like Abraham and David. Don’t get me wrong, we can learn a lot from them. But they are heroes in the Bible, not simplistically for their works. We don’t call them heroes of righteous works of the law. No, we rightly call them heroes of the faith. That means we look at how God worked in their life, and grew them in faith. That means we can and should acknowledge that they were not perfect. That’s why we can look up to them and learn from them. And yet many of the Jews seemed to elevate these men to a higher standard. Paul challenged that. Let us then in our own day take care to not fall into leader worship. There are many men and women of God that we can learn from. But let us not think them perfect or beyond mistake or sin. Let us glory not in men and women of God. Let us not put our faith in them or in their works. Let us put our faith in God in Christ. It’s faith in Christ where we find imputed righteousness. It’s faith in Christ where we find grace and blessing. Let us keep the object of our faith in the right place. Indeed he is worthy of all our affections. Amen.
Copyright © 2012 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.