Put it on My Account
I’m not afraid of heights. At least, I didn’t think I was. Once I trekked 630 feet to the top of the tallest monument in the United Sates, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Okay, full disclosure, I took a Tram Car. At the observation area on top, a row of widows displayed a panoramic layout of the city—thirty miles in either direction. The view was stunning and I couldn’t wait to get a gander at the Mississippi River, Busch Stadium, and the old downtown St. Louis. But to look through those slanted windows, you had to lean forward and put all your weight onto the structure. Leaning on that structure was unnerving and unsettling. All of my senses reeled, telling me to step back. I had a taste of vertigo!
The doctrine of justification by faith alone may give us similar feelings. Our senses reel. Alarms go off telling us to beware and retreat to safety. It feels wrong, unnatural even.
Faith is awkward. Trusting in the work of another is counterintuitive to our wages-earned, wages-paid way of thinking. It challenges our mind and requires explanation.
We live in a world of transactions. You work…you get paid. Or, on the flip side, you pay up or you don’t get in. Nothing is free. You want access? It’s going to cost you. That interesting article you clicked on, there’s a paywall. That incredibly helpful app? $4.99. Set up your Apple Pay. Nothing is free. The “wages earned” mindset has shaped our understanding of the world. That’s why the idea of getting something we didn’t earn credited to our account makes us suspicious. It’s too good to be true. It’s the religious version of “We’ve been trying to reach you about your car’s extended warranty” scam.
Paul knows all of this. That’s why he spent an extra chapter in Romans four to help people like us who are allergic to grace. In verse 4 he writes, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.” We understand that. It’s how we think. It’s how the world works. Wages earned. Services rendered.
If you do work for an employer and she pays you at the end of the week, she’s not being gracious to you. She’s paying you what she owes you. It would be wrong—and even illegal—if she did not pay. She is in your debt. She owes you money for your work.
You completed the labor. You rendered the service. Therefore, when she pays you, it’s not a matter of grace. It’s a legal matter. There is no grace in that transaction. Everyone agrees with Paul here: services rendered = wages owed.
But verse 5 is the gut punch for the proud heart. “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.”
When it comes to establishing your rightness with God, instead of working for it, and expecting it as a reward, you believe in the work of another—Jesus. That’s awkward. That’s counterintuitive. That’s strange to us. That’s why it’s called faith.
Paul argues that in order to be justified (think right or righteous) in God’s eyes, you must believe that Jesus died in your place—that he was paying your sin-debt in full. When you believe that, and accept it as yours, his righteousness is credited to you. You’re in!
The word credited is the most important word in chapter four, appearing eleven times. It’s an accounting term that comes from the world of banks and ledgers. It means that something has been put into your account that you did nothing to earn. Jesus’ perfect work has been credited to you, while your sin and guilt have been credited to him. What an exchange. He gives you all his blessing and takes upon himself all your curse.
In the same way I did not think I was afraid of heights, most church-going folks think they have this doctrine down. But ask your typical church-goer how they would answer if God asks them why he should let them into heaven?
The answers are sometimes shocking. “Because I live a good life and try to obey God.” That’s straight out of the “works” playbook. You’d be comfortable in any other religion too. They all offer some version of that salvation system.
Christ must be the sole object of our faith. Until that happens, no real transfer of trust has taken place. We’re still leaning on our own work, earnestness, or even our feelings. Those are all sinking sand.
Paul knows how challenging this is for us. That’s why he wrote thirteen epistles. All of them tackle this doctrine in some form or another. We’re stubborn. But the doctrine of justification by faith alone is a hill to die on.
Martin Luther, the reformer said, “Without this doctrine, the world is utter death and darkness.” John Calvin wrote, “Whenever knowledge of justification by faith alone is taken away, the glory of Christ is extinguished, religion abolished, the Church destroyed, and the hope of salvation utterly overthrown.”
The enemy knows this. That’s why he aims his most powerful weapons at this doctrine. And that’s why Paul goes to such great lengths to explain, apply, and defend it to the church at Rome—and to us.
If there is just one exception to this doctrine, the whole thing crumbles to the ground like a house of cards. That’s why Paul’s next argument goes all the way back into the Old Testament, calling out two Jewish hall-of-fame witnesses (Abraham and David) to prove that faith is the only way God has ever saved.
Apart from faith in God alone, the father of the Jews and Israel’s greatest king were both hopeless. We’re in the same boat. Ungodly people with no merit to our name. What hope do we have? Same as them. Faith in Jesus. They looked forward to the promise, and we look back. Different direction, same object: Jesus, the bloody Messiah who traded places with guilty rebels like us. “To the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” Are you in?