God Justifies the Ungodly

Romans 4:1-17

17 February 2008

St Mary's, White Waltham

Holy Communion


Are you a good person?

I really hope you aren't. Yes, you heard correctly: I really hope that you are not a good person. I hope that there are no good people here this morning. Because if you are a good person you will never be right with God.

To justify this statement that you may find surprising, I want to focus on two verses from the passage in Romans chapter 4: verse four and verse five.

Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.ref

These verses contrast two ways of getting right with God, or gaining righteousness. We can either try hard to be good — which verse four describes as "works" — or our approach to getting right with God can be on the basis of trust — that's verse five: the man who does not work but trusts Godref.

Paul's message here, and throughout Romans and all his writing, is, stop trying to make yourself right with God and start trusting God to make you right.

Stop Trying (to get yourself right with God)

If you believe you are a good person then, when you approach God, you will always try to do it on the basis of your own good works.

If you think you are a good person, when you appear before God you'll want to say to him: look at what I've done! Look how often I went to church, even when it was cold! Look at how much money I've given to charity. Look how hard I worked as church warden. Look how well I did the flowers. Look how many lessons I read. Look how often I played the organ. You've heard me say the Lord's prayer every single day.

Look, Lord, I've never cheated on my expenses, I've never even received a parking ticket, let alone a speeding fine. I've never been unfaithful in my marriage. And, I've always tried to be so nice to people.

Look how good I've been; you know I've tried really, really hard. Now, Lord, pay me what you owe me!

That's what verse 4 says, isn't it? Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation.ref Pay me what you owe me! I've done the work, now pay me my wages!

When I get my payslip each month, I know that I deserve it. I've put in the hours; I've done the work and tried to do it well. The company is just fulfilling its side of the contract: they are paying me what they owe me, and they should probably pay me more. But if we come to God with that attitude we are in serious trouble.

Even Abraham didn't come to God with that attitude. In verse 2 Paul says that if Abraham had trusted in his own obedience he would have had something to boast about before God. But even Abraham had nothing to boast about before God. Even he could not get right with God on the basis of his own good deeds. And if Abraham couldn't do it, what hope have we got?

As Paul has spent the previous three chapters proving, not one of us is good in God's eyes. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of Godref. He says, no-one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the lawref, that is, by being good. God is not impressed by our efforts.

Is that what you are relying on? That you can build up enough credit in this life that God owes you something in the next? Well, the bottom line from Paul for those who are determined to come to God on the basis of what they have done, trusting in their own goodness, is in verse 15. He simply says the law brings wrathref. If you are trusting in keeping the rules to get yourself right with God, he owes you nothing but his wrath.

We need another way.

Start Trusting (God to put you right)

And that's what we find in verse 5. In verse 4 Paul says stop working; stop trying to get right with God. In verse 5 he says, start trusting: start trusting God to make you right.

He says, However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.ref Stop trying; start trusting.

Righteousness from God cannot be earned, Paul is saying, it can only be received as a gift.

Paul says that God "credits righteousness" to us. In fact, he talks about God crediting righteousness six times in these verses. It's not our own righteousness. We have no righteousness of our own. In the sight of God there is nothing right about us. But God can impart or impute to us a righteousness that we have not earned.

The picture is like this. Morally we are bankrupt. We are so deeply in the red that we can never ever earn enough to get ourselves out of our debt of sin before God.

But, Paul says, God is willing to make a transfer to our accounts. He can transfer righteousness from his account to ours to completely wipe out our debt. And he will do this if only we will trust him instead of trying to work our own way out.

Paul proves that this can happen with two examples. First he quotes Psalm 32 to show that David understood that God is able to forgive sin if we confess it,

Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him.ref

There's no hint here of David trying to atone for his sin. He knows he couldn't. Instead David is simply trusting God not to count his sin against him, literally, not to credit his sin to his account.

The other example is Abraham who shows that this is the way God has always worked: David is not a special case. In Genesis chapter 15, when God makes childless Abraham the impossible promise that he would have more descendants than stars in the sky, it says, Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousnessref

Crucially, Paul points out, Genesis 15 comes before Genesis 17. Abraham was declared righteous before he followed God's command to be circumcised. It could not have been Abraham's obedience to the legal command that made him right with God, because the legal command came after God had credited him righteousness. It could not have been trying to keep the Mosaic law that made Abraham right with God, because the Mosaic law wasn't given until over four-hundred years later.

So Abraham is a model for us: he trusted God, and therefore God counted him righteous. If we want to be right with God then we simply need to trust him.

Of course, David and Abraham couldn't have understood how this works. How can a just God declare the ungodly righteous? But this side of the cross we can see exactly how it works.

Just as in the world of finance, when a debt is cancelled, somebody somewhere has to pay. And this is what happened when Jesus died on the cross. If we trust in his death for us, then it is Jesus' righteousness — his goodness — that is credited to us, and our moral debt — our badness — that is transferred to him.

As Paul puts it elsewhere, God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.ref. Our moral debt can be transferred to Jesus; and Jesus' righteousness can be credited to us.

God justifies the ungodly

So, Christianity is not for good people. Most of the world, and quite a lot of the church, seems to think that Christianity is about moral reformation, about trying hard to be better people. But Paul tells us that that is entirely and completely wrong.

Most people seem to think that the message of Christianity is "Be good, be good, and God will be pleased with you!". But Paul tells us that the message of Christianity is "God justifies the ungodly". ("Ungodly" is a better translation than "wicked" in verse 5.)

If you have never come before God and confessed to him your deep and hopeless ungodliness then you can never be right with him. If you are relying on being a good person and hoping God will be pleased with you, then you are lost. You've never understood the Christian faith at all.

Jesus told a parable that makes the same point that Paul is making here. He described a Pharisee and a tax collector praying in the temple. The Pharisee gave a catalogue of his good works. "I don't behave badly like other people," he said, "I fast twice a week and I give away a tenth of all I get". In other words, "Look at how hard I'm trying, God. Now pay me what you owe me!"

The tax collector simply cried out, "God have mercy on me, a sinner". He knew his badness, and he did the only thing possible: he trusted God for his forgiveness. This is the one that Jesus says went away justified before God.

That's exactly what Paul says about God in Romans 4 verse 5: he is a God who justifies the ungodly.

This is the best news in the world, because it means that anyone can come to him. If the only qualification for coming to God is that you are ungodly, then any of us can come!

It doesn't depend on your family or your birth. Paul makes this point clearly with the example of Abraham. The Jews thought that only they had access to God, because they were the only people to whom God had given the sign of circumcision and the privilege of the law. But Abraham was made right with God long before either of these things. So, Paul says, anyone can get right with God: it doesn't depend on your birth or privilege.

It doesn't depend on how good you are. You cannot earn the favour of God, so it's futile to try. There is no point at which you can say, I've done enough, now God will accept me. So stop trying to make yourself right with him, and start trusting his gift.

And it doesn't matter how bad you are. God justifies the ungodly! If you are thinking now, God would never have me, I've never been good enough and I will never be good enough. Then you are 100% completely and utterly wrong. If you are thinking, I've been too bad, then listen to what the Bible says: God justifies the ungodly! God justifies the wicked! Whoever you are, whatever you've done, God can put you right with him.


There are, I have no doubt, thousands of people in churches up and down the country this morning who have not yet grasped this essential fact about Christianity: being right with God does not depend on trying to be good, it depends only on trusting God.

It would be unusual if there weren't some here this morning who have never truly understood this. It may be that you are aware that you have always been trying to base your relationship with God on your own efforts and work. As a result you've found religion to be empty and joyless and hopeless.

If that's your experience, then please hear the message from the Bible this morning: stop trying to make yourself right with God; start trusting God to make you right with him. Like the tax collector, come to God and say "Lord have mercy upon me, a sinner". Put your trust in God who justifies the ungodly. Then he will make you right with himself. Then he will fill you with his Holy Spirit. Then you will know joy and freedom in your faith.

In a few moments we will be sharing communion together. If you are a good person, can I say to you, please don't take it. It's not for you. We remember Jesus' death because it justifies the ungodly. But if you know the depths of the wickedness of your heart, if you've given up trying to justify yourself before him, and you are simply trusting in Jesus' death on your behalf to put you right with God, then take the gifts of bread and wine and accept them with all your heart.