“And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness”
(Romans 4:5 ESV)
There are many worthwhile truths for us to study in the scripture but it is good that we never lose sight of the fundamentals of the Gospel. In this verse the apostle Paul captures in amazing brevity the very heartbeat of the Gospel. In this section of the letter to the Romans Paul is arguing from Old Testament examples (Abraham & David) that righteousness is accredited to men from God by faith. After discussing the example of Abraham he makes the profound statement above.
Notice that this verse says nothing about the death, substitutionary atonement, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. These of course are foundational to the Gospel but as we read verse 5 we must understand that these elements are in the background and are the means upon which the statement stands. If we, like Paul, understand it this way we can see that in just a few words Paul has summarized what lesser theologians spend hundreds of pages saying. Namely, that we are justified by faith alone. This is, in one sentence, the great doctrine of Sola Fide.
Paul emphasizes that it is faith that is counted as righteousness. Notice also that it is the faith of the “one who does not work but believes”. Paul leaves no room here for a synergistic justification that includes both faith and works because specifically and purposefully the one who believes in this example is the one who does NOT work. What is more, the implication is that the one who believes here not only doesn’t work but he/she is in fact ungodly! The faith demonstrated is the faith in the one who justifies the ungodly and this faith is what is credited as righteousness.
This one simple verse captures for us the need to recognize our own inability to live up to God’s standard and our own inability to work for our own salvation. It is only through faith in the one, Jesus Christ, who justifies the ungodly that we can hope to be justified. How precious it is to recognize that we are sinners for it is sinners that our Lord came to save. Until we come to see that it is only through our trust and absolute dependence, in faith, in the work of Christ we not only will not be saved but cannot be.
If history is any guide many will see this as a dangerous teaching and an encouragement to godlessness. We must ask, however, what kind of people would see it this way. Certainly not those who see themselves as rescued from the very pit of hell. Those who have been rescued do not presume upon the Grace of their savior. By asserting that we are justified by faith we do not proclaim a dead or workless faith but rather assert along with Calvin and others that although faith alone justifies, the faith that justifies is never alone. I pray that our pulpits would have a passion for the proclamation of justification by faith, and faith alone because that is the essence of the Gospel itself. Some will twist this to their own destruction but to those who are being saved it will be the most precious truth that they ever hear.