"Justification is illustrated in the Old Testament" Page 2 of 6 (series: Lessons on Romans)
by John Lowe
4 Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt.
This is one of the greatest statements in the Bible concerning the contrast between works and faith in reference to the plan of salvation. Think of it this way: when a man works for a living and gets his paycheck at the end of the week, he is entitled to his wages. He has earned them. He does not bow and scrape before his employer, thanking him for such a display of kindness and protesting that he doesn’t deserve the money. Not at all! He puts the money in his pocket and goes home with the feeling that he has only been reimbursed for his time and labor. But that’s not the way it is in the matter of justification. Paul explains that justification by works rests on the principle that men may earn their salvation by doing good. If this principle were true, good men would be saved by their good works and salvation would not be a gift at all. But justification by faith rests on the principle that God imputes righteousness to the ungodly as a free gift. Salvation is not, therefore, earned by the sinner, but is freely given to him when he puts his faith in the blood of Jesus Christ. If it could be earned like a wage paid for doing good deeds, then it would be, to God, a debt that He owed. But we are told in Romans 6:23 that the “wages of sin is death.” Paul said in Romans 3:23 that “all have sinned.” By putting the two verses together, it’s clear that all we have coming to us is death (spiritual death). Therefore, there are no amount of good things that will make a person justified in God’s sight.
5 But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness,
Shocking as it may seem, the justified man is the one who, first of all, does not work. He renounces any possibility of earning his salvation. He disavows any personal merit or goodness. He acknowledges that all his best labors could never fulfill God’s righteous demands. Instead, he believes on Him who justifies the ungodly. He puts his faith and trust in the Lord. He takes God at His word. As we have seen, this is not a meritorious action. The merit is not in his faith, but in the Object of his faith.
Notice that he believes on Him who justifies the ungodly. He doesn’t come with the plea that he has tried his best, that he has lived by the Golden Rule, that he has not been as bad as others. No, he comes as an ungodly, guilty sinner and throws himself on the mercy of God. And what is the result? His faith is accounted to him for righteousness. Because he has come believing instead of working, God puts righteousness to his account. Through the merits of the risen Savior, God clothes him with righteousness, and in that way makes him fit for heaven. From then on, God sees him in Christ and accepts him on that basis.
To summarize, then, justification is for the ungodly—not for good people. It is a matter of grace—not of debt. And it is received by faith—not by works. By the way, can you name a good person, I can’t. Our righteousness is “like filthy rags”—“there are none righteous, no not one.”
6 Just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works.
Paul next turned to David, Israel’s celebrated king, as another example of an individual who received God’s free pardon (see 2 Sam. 11:1–12:23; Ps. 32:1, 2). Paul has made a case for Abraham’s justification apart from works; now he strengthens that case with the case for David’s righteousness. The purpose of introducing David’s situation is twofold:
1. The Jews’ law regarding two witnesses (Deut 19:15; referred to by Jesus in Mt 18:16 and by Paul in II Cor 13:1 and I Tim 5:19). David corroborated what is said about Abraham and further illustrates salvation apart from works.
2. David gives witness that the same principle of justification was operative even for those living under the Mosaic Law.
David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works. Even King David knew the truth of the words he penned in Psalm 32:1–2, which Paul quotes in verses 7 and 8. “Who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Pet. 2:24-25). As believers, our iniquities are forgiven and our sins are covered. The reason the believer’s sins are not charged to him is that they have been imputed to Christ Jesus (cf. Isa 53; I Pet 2:24–25).
David said that the happy man (blessed man) is the sinner whom God reckons righteous apart from works. Although David never said this in so many words, the Apostle derives it from Psalm 32:1, 2, which he quotes in the next two verses. No sacrifice for such grave offenses as David had committed was prescribed in the Law. David could only cast himself on the mercy of God. “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Heb. 11:6). No amount of good works can compensate for lack of faith. After all is said and done, when a man refuses to believe God, he is calling Him a liar. “He who does not believe God has made Him a liar” (1 Jn. 5:10), and how can God be pleased by people who call Him a liar?
7 Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered.
As Paul penned verse 7, it is almost certain he was thinking of an incident in Judges 7. There it is recorded that Gideon equipped his army with trumpets, empty pitchers, and lamps within the pitchers. At the appointed signal, his men were to blow their trumpets and break the pitchers. When the pitchers were broken, the lamps shone out in brilliance. This terrified the enemy. They thought there was a vast host after them, instead of just three hundred men. The lesson is that, just as in Gideon’s case, the light only shone forth when the pitchers were broken, and that’s the way it is with the gospel. Only when human instruments are broken and yielded to the Lord can the gospel shine forth through us in all its magnificence.
Verse 7 is a direct quote from Psalm 32, verses 1 and 2. David wrote Psalm 32 after his great sin with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11). Can God forgive a man who commits adultery, deceit, and murder? Yes! When David repented and turned to God, he was forgiven, even though the Lord allowed David to feel the bitter consequences of his sins (2 Sam. 12). God justifies the ungodly, not the righteous (Matt. 9:9–13).
Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven. Are you one of the blessed ones today? Well, I am glad to be in that company, in that number. Blessed expresses that wonderful joy that comes when you know your sins are forgiven. David experienced this type of joy.
Iniquities are lawlessness. David deliberately broke the law. He didn’t do it ignorantly. He knew what he was doing, and he was forgiven.
Whose sins are covered refers to a definite and complete act of forgiveness. A hard-boiled judge may under certain conditions forgive sins. But this speaks of the tenderness of God by taking the sinner into His arms of love and receiving him with affection. His sins are covered. How? Because Jesus died and shed His blood.
8 Blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not impute sin.”
Blessed is the man to whom the LORD shall not impute sin. What did Paul see in these verses? First of all, he noticed that David said nothing about works; forgiveness is a matter of God’s grace, not of man’s efforts. Second, he saw that if God doesn’t impute sin to a person, then that person must have a righteous standing before Him. Finally, he saw that God justifies the ungodly; David had been guilty of adultery and murder, yet in these verses he tastes the sweetness of full and free pardon.
9 Does this blessedness then come upon the circumcised only, or upon the uncircumcised also? For we say that faith was accounted to Abraham for righteousness.
Circumcision was a physical sign or seal of the covenant between God and His chosen nation (Gen. 17). But God did not give Abraham this sign of the covenant until Abraham was 99 years old. Many years prior to this time, Abraham had responded to God in faith and received right standing before God.
Paul has made the case that justification is by faith alone. He has illustrated the argument, with the lives of Abraham and David, that God has never worked on a principle of justification by works. Yet it is difficult for the Jews, the sons of Abraham, to accept that they may be justified in exactly the same way as the heathen Gentiles. Therefore, these verses introduce another potential argument against justification by faith.
It is true that both Abraham (who lived before the Law), and David (who lived under the Law) received righteousness. But, so the Jew would argue, both of them were also circumcised. Since circumcision is the sign of the covenant between God and His chosen people (Gen 17:9–14), isn’t it possible that this was the grounds for their justification? The question that Paul anticipates is this: Does this blessedness then come upon the circumcised only, or upon the uncircumcised also? Paul answer is, faith was accounted to Abraham for righteousness. This immediately triggers another question concerning the reckoning (accounting) of righteousness.